First-ever exemptions granted to hearing impaired, deaf drivers

By Jami Jones, Land Line managing editor | 2/1/2013

Forty hearing impaired and deaf individuals will soon be truck drivers thanks to exemptions from the hearing restrictions in the federal regulations granted on Friday, Feb. 1.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration published a notice in the Federal Register granting exemptions from the physical qualifications standard concerning hearing. The notice was in response to an application for exemptions filed on behalf of 45 individuals by the National Association of the Deaf in July 2011.

Currently the physical qualifications standards state that an individual is physically qualified to drive if that person:

First perceives a forced whispered voice in the better ear at not less than 5 feet with or without the use of a hearing aid or, if tested by use of an audiometric device, does not have an average hearing loss in the better ear greater than 40 decibels at 500 Hz, 1,000 Hz, and 2,000 Hz with or without a hearing aid when the audiometric device is calibrated to American National Standard (formerly ASA Standard) Z24.5—1951.

That standard adopted in 1970 and revised in 1971 cited and relied heavily on a study requested by FMCSA and presented to the agency in 2008, according to the Federal Register notice.

That report stated that no studies looked exclusively at hearing loss and crash risk exclusively among commercial vehicle drivers. But evidence in studies of the private driver license population didn’t support the contention that hearing loss increases crash risk.

“The same report also questioned the validity of the DOT’s ‘forced whisper test’ concluding that the ‘forced whisper test’ has a high sensitivity, but low specificity, meaning that some people with normal hearing fail the forced whisper test,” the National Association of the Deaf wrote in the petition.

The agency opened the petition up for comments in May 2012. Universally speaking, there was not much pushback against granting the exemptions.

The Advocates for Highway Safety did file comments contending that the agency needed to retool the regulation, not give “ad hoc” exemptions to the regulations.

FMCSA stated in response that while the agency appreciates that position, the rulemaking process was too lengthy to afford relief to the individuals in the petition.

The American Bus Association filed comments in opposition to granting exemptions to hearing impaired or deaf individuals in passenger carrying operations. The group stated that driving is actually only part of the responsibilities of a bus driver and they must be able to communicate with the passengers, especially in emergency situations.
FMCSA agreed and the Federal Register notice states that exemptions will not be valid on CDLs with a P (passenger) endorsement.

In addition to considering the physical qualifications of the applicants, the agency reviewed the driving history of the individuals in the petition, many of whom hold intrastate CDLs. Each applicant’s record demonstrated a safe driving history, the Federal Register notice states.

In the end, in granting the exemptions to 40 of 45 individuals in the petition, the agency acknowledges there could be potential consequences of a driver being hearing impaired or deaf driving a truck under some scenarios.

“However, the agency believes the drivers covered by the exemption do not pose a risk to public safety,” the Federal Register notice states.

The additional applicants not granted exemptions at this time will be reviewed further and results later published in the Federal Register.

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