By JOAN LOWY, Associated Press Writer – Tue Dec 2, 12:01 pm ET
WASHINGTON – Federal regulators are taking steps to get medically unfit truck and bus drivers off the road after being accused for years of dragging their feet on the issue.
Under a rule approved by the bus drivers’ licenses with drivers’ medical examination certificates into a single electronic record., states will be required to merge commercial truck and
Linking the two will make it easier to check whether drivers have met medical requirements to operate commercial vehicles. States will have three years to comply.
The administration has also proposed creating a registry of medical examiners qualified to award certificates to drivers. Examiners who fail to meet minimum standards could be barred from issuing fitness-to-drive certificates.
“These actions will support and strengthen our continuing commitment to ensure that only medically qualified individuals are allowed to operate an interstate truck or bus. Safety is our paramount responsibility,” John Hill, head of the motor carrier safety administration, said in a statement.
Agency officials were severely chastised at a House hearing earlier this year for going years without addressing the problem of medically unfit drivers despite repeated warnings from Congress.
The rule finalized on Monday addresses some of a series of recommendations made by thein 2001 in response to a motorcoach accident two years earlier in New Orleans that killed 22.
In the New Orleans accident, NTSB said the bus driver, 46-year-old Frank Bedell, suffered life-threatening kidney and heart conditions but still held a valid commercial license and certificate saying he was fit to drive. A passenger recounted seeing the driver slumped in his seat moments before the crash.
Tractor-trailer and bus drivers have suffered seizures, heart attacks or unconscious spells while behind the wheel. Such illnesses have been a critical factor in thousands of serious truck accidents.
Many commercial vehicle drivers whose serious medical conditions are known to their employers, health care providers and others are never reported to motor vehicle licensing authorities, NTSB says.
A Government Accountability Office study earlier this year found hundreds of thousands of drivers operating trucks and buses even though they had qualified for federal medical disability payments.
A separate study by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee found that fabricating medical certificates required to operate commercial trucks and buses was so easy there was little incentive for drivers to obtain a legitimate document.
“Because so few attempts are made to authenticate a certificate, there is little risk that a driver will be caught if he or she forges or adulterates a certificate,” the study said.
One Ohio doctor contacted by the committee said forgery of medical certificates is so commonplace “no one gets alarmed by it anymore.”
© 2008, Allen Smith. All rights reserved.