Scott Cook lost his arm when he was 5 years old. After 20 years of accident-free driving, he lost his CDL because he refused to drive with a prosthetic limb. He estimates his battle to regain his CDL has cost millions in lost income and legal fees.
For nearly 30 years trucker Gerald Huelle drove the roads of Wyoming, Colorado and California hauling loads of borax, hay and grain. In that time, he amassed millions of accident-free miles – the picture of a safe trucker and successful small business owner. Then in 2001, after a routine Department of Transportation physical, Huelle’s insurance company found out he used insulin to treat his adult-onset diabetes. Suddenly Huelle, who has used insulin without incident for more than a decade, lost not only his insurance coverage but his commercial drivers licenses as well. In effect, he was barred from the very roads he had piloted safely for years.
“I had no idea you couldn’t drive interstate and take insulin,” Huelle says. “It’s plum ridiculous.”
In April 1993, Minnesota owner-operator Tom Breth was named the state’s safe driver of the month, a distinction bestowed upon him several times over his 25-year driving career. Even though he amassed millions of safe miles hauling oversized loads from Minnesota to Fairbanks, Alaska – many of those miles on gravel roads – two months later the federal government suspended his commercial driver’s license when it found out he had vision in only one eye. “I had nothing at that point,” Breth says. “They took everything.”
For Huelle and Breth – and thousands of drivers like them – federal regulations governing medical conditions can have a chilling effect on a driving career. For some, who have a condition such as diabetes that develops over time, the regulations threaten their ability to earn a living as an interstate trucker. Others, who may have lived with a condition such as monocular vision or a missing limb all their lives, face a battle to overcome a medical limitation that may never have actually limited their ability to safely operate a truck.
And while the federal government allows exemptions for some of the disqualifications, it is reluctant to give them. If truckers are disqualified from driving on U.S. interstates and wish to apply for a medical waiver, they drive onto the highway of bureaucratic hell.
There are more than a dozen medical conditions that the U.S. DOT can use to disqualify drivers. Among the more common:
- Visual acuity of less than 20/40 in each eye with or without corrective lenses
- Loss of a foot, leg, hand or arm
- Diabetes mellitus requiring insulin for blood sugar control
- Cardio-vascular diseases like myocardial infarction, angina pectoris, coronary insufficiency, thrombosis
- High blood pressure likely to interfere with the ability to operate a commercial motor vehicle safely
- A clinical diagnosis of epilepsy.
These conditions automatically disqualify a driver from holding a CDL for interstate operation of commercial motor vehicles. Over the years, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and its predecessor agencies crafted exemption programs for many of the disqualifying conditions. If a driver’s condition was under tight control and he could demonstrate safe operation of a commercial motor vehicle, he would be allowed to drive.
At least that was the premise. The actual implementation of those programs has been somewhat more contentious for drivers, according to Rinke Noonan, a Minnesota law firm which has successfully sued the DOT several times on behalf of disqualified drivers. Where the FMCSA – and before it, the Federal Highway Administration – has been required by courts and Congress to consider disqualified truckers as individuals and grant them waivers based on their ability to operate safely, the “DOT has argued that an individual driver’s demonstrated functional ability to drive will not be considered unless there is overwhelming statistical evidence that thousands of drivers with exactly the same functional impairment can safely drive.”
This approach has limited the number of disqualified drivers who have received waivers. It has created nearly impossible hurdles for waiver applicants to overcome and flaunted the intent of Congress on multiple occasions, according to truckers, driver advocates, legal counsel, members of Congress and carrier personnel who have tangled with FMCSA over exemptions. The agency would not grant an interview for this story. Still, in its oft-published denials of waivers, FMCSA frequently cites its role as the arbiter of safety on U.S. interstates.
In denying one driver’s petition for waiver in 2001, Julie Anna Cirillo, acting deputy administrator of FMCSA, wrote “FMCSA is committed to making the nation’s highways safer for all motorists by reducing large-truck involvement in highway crashes. We must hold interstate CMV drivers to a strict medical standard to achieve this goal.”