SPECIAL REPORT: GAO study critical of DOT’s medical process

| 7/21/2008

Monday, July 21, 2008 – A new federal report eyeing the physical fitness of commercial truck drivers is making national headlines for apparently blaming ill truck drivers for highway safety problems – although a close examination shows the report is more critical of the medical examination system than the drivers.

The report could carry special significance as congressional leaders and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration weigh changes in medical approvals for CDL holders.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report this week titled “Commercial Drivers: Certification Process for Drivers with Serious Medical Conditions,” which highlights gaps in the medical approval process for CDL holders in four states.

About 563,000 individuals have been issued CDLs even though they are classified by the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs as being eligible for full disability benefits, according to the GAO. The majority of those CDL holders obtained their licenses after they had been approved for full federal disability.

That 563,000 figure – which equals about 4 percent of CDL holders nationally and was cited in many news stories Monday – appears to be high after further inspection.

A study of 12 states with 135,000 CDL holders showed about 85 percent of the group to have active licenses. That figure, however, doesn’t include drivers whose licenses had been suspended, revoked or lapsed, nor does it include individuals with active CDLs who don’t drive trucks.

The report cited 15 anecdotal instances by which doctors, state license workers or drivers circumvented the DOT’s medical physical exam process.

The study was leaked to the Associated Press just days before the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s scheduled oversight hearings, which are set for Thursday, July 24. The report was sent to Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-MN, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-OR, chairman of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

“Not all serious medical conditions interfere with the safe operation of a commercial vehicle,” the GAO wrote. “It is unknown to what extent individuals with serious medical conditions hold CDLs and whether there are situations of medically unfit individuals who hold a CDL.”

OOIDA acknowledged Monday, July 21, that the current DOT medical exam process is flawed – a statement the Association has previously supported in written comments and testimony.

Most states don’t require medical certificates to be presented to obtain a CDL, and state license officials and medical professionals, and drivers can make errors in the process.

Adding layers of red tape, however, could damage small trucking businesses already reeling from a down economy and soaring 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 CDL,” Craig told Land Line Now. “Having a bad back or a loss of limb – you can actually get waivers in some cases and still drive a truck and drive a truck quite well.”

Several national news stories by the mainstream media focused specifically on truck drivers, including headlines such as “Deadly tolls: sick truckers causing fatal wrecks.” Those stories, however, appeared to lack context such as comparing the 15 anecdotal examples the GAO investigated with the 6 million CDL holders in the U.S., and offered no specific figures for crashes blamed on drivers with disabilities.

The GAO typically offers recommendations for reorganizing government efforts, but signaled early and often throughout its report on commercial drivers that the investigative office didn’t have answers to fixing medical issues.

“GAO is not making any recommendations,” the report read.

“Our analysis simply provides a starting point for exploring the effectiveness of the current CDL medical certification process.”

To read the GAO's report, click here.

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer