A report by the Govermental Accountability Office to Congress on Commercial Drivers Certification Process for Drivers with Serious Medical Conditions has found that many tractor-trailer and bus drivers in the United States have suffered seizures, heart attacks or unconscious spells behind the wheel that led to deadly crashes on highways. A large percentage of those drivers carry commercial licenses even though they also qualify for full federal disability payments, according to the GAO study.
These dangers continue despite years of government warnings and hundreds of deaths and injuries blamed on commercial truck and bus drivers who blacked out, collapsed or suffered major health problems behind the wheels of vehicles that can weigh 40 tons or more.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the U.S. agency responsible for policing the actions of unfit commercial drivers admits that it hasn’t completed any of eight recommendations that U.S. safety regulators have proposed since 2001. One would set minimum standards for officials who determine whether truckers are medically safe to drive. Another would prevent truckers from “doctor shopping” to find a physician who might overlook a risky health condition.
“We have a major public safety problem, and we haven’t corrected it,” said Gerald Donaldson, senior research director at the Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, whose members include consumer, health and safety groups and insurance companies. “You have an agency that is favorably disposed to maintaining the integrity of the industry’s economic situation.”
According the a review by the Associated Press, truckers violating federal medical rules have been caught in every state. The AP reviewd 7.3 million commercial driver violations compiled by the Transportation Department in 2006, the latest data available. Texas, Maryland, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Alabama, New Jersey, Minnesota and Ohio were states where drivers were sanctioned most frequently for breaking medical rules, such as failing to carry a valid medical certificate. Those 12 states accounted for half of all such violations in the United States.
The Transportation Department said 5,300 people died in crashes involving large commercial trucks or buses in 2006, the latest year for which figures are available, and about 126,000 more were injured. A federal safety study last summer found that cases where drivers fell asleep, suffered heart attacks or seizures or otherwise were physically impaired were a leading cause of serious crashes involving large trucks. But those cases included healthy drivers who fell asleep.
“The problem is major,” said Dr. Kurt Hegmann, chairman of the federal motor carrier administration’s medical oversight board, which is urging more doctor visits in many cases for truckers with serious medical conditions. “It’s one of the biggest causes of occupational death in the United States today.”
Congress may take action soon. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., will conduct oversight hearings Thursday. One proposal would create a clearinghouse for drug test results for commercial truck drivers to make it easier for employers to conduct checks. Oberstar’s committee asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate unfit truck drivers.
The 30-page GAO study said 563,000 commercial drivers were determined by the Veterans Affairs Department, Labor Department or Social Security Administration to also be eligible for full disability benefits over health issues. It said disability doesn’t necessarily mean a driver is unfit to operate a commercial vehicle, but its investigators found alarming examples that raised doubts about the safety of the nation’s highways. They identified more than 1,000 drivers with vision, hearing or seizure disorders, which generally would prohibit a trucker from obtaining a valid commercial license.
The chief safety officer for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Rose McMurray, acknowledged problems that could lead to unfit truck drivers on the roads. She blamed delays in reforms on a lack of federal money and difficulty coordinating with 50 states. McMurray said changes to strengthen the medical oversight program may not be done for months or even years.
“We have done a lot to recognize the deficiencies in our medical oversight program, and the building blocks we’re establishing are very smart and very strong,” McMurray said.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration: http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety: http://www.saferoads.org/
Government Accountability Office: http://www.gao.gov/
To review the complete GAO report: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08826.pdf