But disqualified drivers say the agency tries to keep good drivers from returning to the road at any cost. “I had one DOT person tell me I’d probably never get a waiver,” says Huelle. “There were 78 people who applied for a waiver in my program. Pretty soon it was down to five or six of us. If you didn’t dot the I’s or cross your T’s, your application is rejected. It doesn’t matter if you’re a safe driver.”
“I have a letter from Janet Reno, who was U.S. attorney general at the time,” says Breth, who successfully sued the agency in the late 1990s. “She suggested that I seek other employment outside of trucking – never mind my rights.”
Off the road
For some drivers, staying in the driver’s seat after a medically-related disqualification is still an option. Many states allow truckers to drive a Class 8 truck intrastate depending on a state’s own regulations. But such local exceptions are narrowing as the federal government pushes states to adopt driving rules that match Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations.
One egregious example of this trend deals with insulin-treated diabetics. FMCSA’s predecessor agencies outlawed insulin-treated diabetics in the 1970s at a time when such treatment was in its infancy and blood sugar monitors were nonexistent. As science and diabetes treatment advanced, Congress ordered the agency in the 1990s to re-evaluate such drivers and set up an exemption program for them. After several false starts, the agency created a program in September 2003 that was nearly impossible to qualify for because so many states had adopted FMCSA’s stringent regulations for insulin users.
“In order to even apply, a driver had to be able to safely operate a commercial motor vehicle for three years while on insulin,” explains Shereen Arent, managing director of legal advocacy for the American Diabetes Association. “This meant you had to be in a state that allowed insulin-treated diabetics to drive commercial motor vehicles. That was virtually impossible in 20 states and hard in the rest.”
During the waiver program’s brief tenure, only a few dozen drivers even applied. “People without three years of experience were looking and saying, ‘I have to have three years. I can’t apply, I can’t possibly do it,’” Arent says.
(Congress stepped in this summer to clear up the Catch 22, and FMCSA is currently redesigning the program to eliminate the requirement that drivers operate a commercial motor vehicle while on insulin.)
Disqualified drivers say they resent being told they can only drive in their state, especially after years of safe driving over the road. They have an even better reason to reject driving intrastate: they get paid less. In the case of Huelle, who was disqualified for his insulin-treated diabetes, driving intrastate forces him to make longer trips and stay on the road longer. Also, where Huelle could once pilot the relatively flat roads to Greely, Colo., driving intrastate he must now contend with more dangerous 11 and 12 percent grades with switch backs.
“Driving in-state just flabbergasts me,” Huelle says. “You get close to the border, and then you can’t cross it. I’ve got feed lots 100 miles outside the state, and I can’t go to those. I could go and deliver and come back in the time it takes me to go one-way in Wyoming on the hauls I have now. I have to drive 400 miles to get to where I need to go in state.
“I would have tried another business, but I was born and raised around trucks. Besides, I always liked trucks, and I’ve always wanted to do this.”
But Huelle was lucky. He qualified for the agency’s stringent diabetes program. In September, he was one of four insulin-dependent diabetics to receive a waiver.
Drivers with other disqualifying conditions have no such luck. That’s because the FMCSA has no exemption program for their condition, even though in some cases the agency’s own medical experts have recommended them. The agency is also slow to update its rules, ignoring new science and treatments. Consider the case of West Virginia trucker Terry Clawson. The veteran driver had problems with seizures when he was a teenager and began taking two epilepsy drugs, Dilantin and Phenobarbital. That was 30 years ago, and Clawson hasn’t had a seizure since.