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Headline blues
Media's manipulation and misinterpretation plagues truckers

By Charlie Morasch
staff writer

 

Ronald Piper was just one of many truck drivers stunned this summer by countless television, radio and newspaper reports bashing the collective health and ability of truckers to travel the nation’s highways safely.

Piper, an OOIDA member who had a few minutes to kill before making a drop and heading home recently, had seen headlines like “Ill truckers behind wrecks,” and “Medically unfit truckers roam the highways and authorities know it.”

 “We’re the mean nasty truck drivers,” Piper said sarcastically, before matter-of-factly picking apart the news stories’ incorrect and misleading statements.

The wave of news stories hit in mid-July, disparaging supposedly medically “unfit” truckers who drive 18-wheelers. The stories originated from an Associated Press story on the Government Accountability Office’s report studying the medical certification process for commercial driver’s license holders.

OOIDA members fired away on message boards, and lit up the Association’s phone lines the week of the “unfit” story.

One OOIDA member, trucker Rocky Duff, said media attention to highway crashes should be focused on those who cause the majority of crashes and fatalities: regular vehicles.

 “This country needs to find a new excuse and stop riding the dead horse that the accidents and fatalities on our highways can be majorly reduced by screwing with the trucking industry,” said Duff.

 “If this country would bother to enforce the laws and regulations already in place, I believe you’d find a reduction in all accidents and deaths on our roadways as well as a serious increase in local, county and state revenues.”

Land Line has broken down the GAO’s report, and looked at the influence a single negative story can have on politics and on millions of CDL holders.

The facts

U.S. Representatives James Oberstar, D-MN, and Peter DeFazio, D-OR, asked the GAO in 2007 to investigate the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s program for medical certification of CDL holders, particularly as it relates to drivers with medical disabilities.

CDL holders are required to obtain medical certification every two years. Drivers with disabilities such as an amputated limb or vision impairment must get an exemption to qualify under federal rules.

Changes have been coming to FMCSA’s medical certification program for some time.

Congressional leaders have wanted a single standard for states to tie medical certification to the CDL-issuance process. Currently, some states require drivers to certify their own physical fitness, while others require a signed form from a physician and still others require a long form with detailed medical histories.

Ambiguity in CDL distribution among the states and in the ability for drivers in many states to self-certify their physical fitness has led to some CDL holders slipping through the cracks.

The GAO – the investigative staff for Congress – spent 14 months studying the issue before coming forward with its results in July. Investigators limited their investigation to 12 states, and determined that an estimated 4 percent of CDL holders nationally are qualified for medical disability.

The GAO stated multiple times in its 12-page report that its findings weren’t conclusive and – in a rare step for the congressional investigative office – did not issue a recommendation.

Instead, the report relied on 15 anecdotal cases to represent the status of medically fit truck drivers among an estimated 6 million CDL holders nationally. “Our analysis provides a starting point,” the GAO report stated.

 “We believe our report clearly acknowledges that it is impossible to determine the extent to which these commercial drivers have medical conditions that would preclude them from safely driving a commercial vehicle,” the investigators wrote.

 “In the report, we state that commercial drivers with serious medical conditions can still meet DOT medical fitness requirements to safely operate a commercial vehicle and thus hold CDLs. Further, our report acknowledged that because medical determinations rely in large part on subjective factors that are not captured in databases, it is impossible to determine from data mining and matching the extent to which commercial drivers have a medical condition that precludes them from safely driving a commercial vehicle and therefore if the certification process is effective. Thus, our analysis provides a starting point for exploring the effectiveness of the current CDL medical certification process.”

In short, the GAO admits it’s impossible to say who is unable to safely operate a commercial vehicle, and acknowledges that even drivers on permanent disability may be fully able to physically perform the functions of a truck driver.

Among the 15 wrecks used as examples in the GAO study, the CDL holders aren’t blamed specifically for the wrecks. They’re cited merely for being a participant in a wreck, even if their truck was smashed into by another driver.

The 15 anecdotal mentions offer some evidence of missteps by doctors, state license bureaus and occasionally drivers, which resulted in CDLs being awarded to the drivers.

Several House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members, including Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-TN, pointed out the study’s limitations during a committee hearing in late July.

 “I am concerned that this report will be seen by some to imply a broader problem in the CDL population,” Duncan said. “In fact, the report makes it clear that these 15 cases are not representative of the commercial driver population or individuals receiving medical disability benefits.”

The GAO report mentions the 5,300 people who died in 2006 as a result of crashes involving large commercial trucks “or buses,” but doesn’t place blame for those crashes on the commercial drivers, nor does it mention that the number of fatalities involving heavy-duty diesel trucks dropped below the number of annual motorcycle fatalities, as reported by FMCSA.

News stories about the report went further than the GAO.

The week of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing in late July, American television viewers and newspaper readers were deluged with hundreds of versions of the same Associated Press story. Rod Nofziger, OOIDA’s director of government affairs, attended the committee hearing. He said the news story clouded the CDL issue in question.

 “Certainly politicians are sensitive to the news that is being read and heard by their constituents,” Nofziger told Land Line. “An unfortunate outcome of the AP story was that many newspapers and media outlets not only picked up on its inaccuracies, but in many cases went even further away from what was actually in the GAO report in their own stories.”

Bringing it home

OOIDA has acknowledged that the current DOT medical certification process is flawed – a statement the Association has detailed in written comments and testimony. Most states don’t require medical certification forms to be presented to obtain a CDL. State license officials, medical professionals and drivers can make errors in the process that often go unchecked.

Adding layers of red tape, however, could damage small trucking businesses already reeling from a down economy and from punishing fuel prices, said Rick Craig, OOIDA’s director of regulatory affairs.

Craig said the GAO appeared to have overstated certain claims, including the report’s focus on federal disability compared with the ability to drive a commercial vehicle.

 “Just because someone is receiving full benefits, doesn’t necessarily mean they have a condition that would preclude them from having a truck,” Craig told Land Line Now. “Having a bad back, or a loss of limb – you can actually get exemptions for certain disabilities and still drive a truck, and drive a truck quite well.”

Representatives grilled FMCSA Chief Safety Officer Rose McMurray about the issue, with House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar blasting FMCSA for not clamping down on fraudulent medical certifications and for not requiring a system by which medical examiners could see CDL holders medical histories.

FMCSA’s response to the issue could come from the agency’s medical review board, a five-member body stocked with physicians.

The group recently recommended that all CDL holders with a body mass index of 30 or greater be required to undergo expensive sleep apnea testing.

OOIDA’s Associate Director of Government Affairs Melissa Theriault, who attends the FMCSA Medical Review Board meetings, said in a column for Land Line that product salesman and physicians who benefit from medical testing and other mandates are participants in medical review board meetings.

 “Unfortunately for drivers, the five physicians on the Medical Review Board are practicing physicians and have a monetary stake in their task,” Theriault said. “When they look at drivers, they see ATM machines.”

Theriault encouraged truck drivers to stay tuned for comment periods on proposed medical requirements and to contact their representatives and senators on the issues.

Until then, she said, “OOIDA will be present and vocal in advocating on behalf of drivers.”

Moving on

Just as many Land Line readers did that week in July, Ronald Piper had to put the negative news story away.

After a few minutes he had to end the phone conversation.

He had a job to do. LL

charlie_morasch@landlinemag.com

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