Disqualified

| January 03, 2006

With no major accidents in 25 years of driving and no seizures in 30 years, Clawson figured he was the kind of driver FMCSA would want on the road. But all that was irrelevant to the agency. Because he was taking epileptic drugs, he lost his CDL in 2001 during a routine DOT physical. He should have been disqualified years before, but the physician that examined him was the first to notice he was on the two drugs. Even though it was in his medical records, the same physician missed the disqualifying medications in two previous exams. As in Huelle’s case, the system finally caught up, and Clawson was out of a job.

Houff Transfer, his carrier of 20 years, regretfully let him go. “I make a lot less money now working for the state of West Virginia – probably $30,000 less a year,” Clawson says. “In the last four years, I’ve lost $130,000 in income. It could be possibly more.”

After Clawson lost his CDL, he enlisted a lawyer, his doctors, a local neurologist and several doctors at Johns Hopkins, two members of Congress and one of his U.S. senators to help. He also contacted the Epilepsy Foundation – all to no avail. The agency rejected his pleas for relief, citing its rules barring drivers who are taking anti-seizure medication from driving.

The agency’s rules concerning epilepsy are decades old and fly in the face of modern science and the circumstances of Clawson’s case, says Sandy Finucane, vice president legal and government affairs for the Epilepsy Foundation. “We have repeatedly petitioned the DOT in the past to do something about this. It’s time to look at their regs. They’re too restrictive and too blanket. They need to be updated.”

Neither Clawson nor the Epilepsy Foundation want to see FMCSA’s disqualification removed. They admit the danger of letting drivers who still suffer from seizures operate large trucks. But they would like the agency to evaluate individuals and give those epileptics living seizure-free an opportunity to drive.

The agency is inflexible and often fails to follow its own policies, says logging company owner and trucker Scott Cook, who lost his license in 2000 when the DOT decided he needed a prosthetic limb to safely drive a truck. This was news to Cook, who in two decades of driving on some of the toughest roads in the U.S. – from Coos Bay, Ore., to southern Alaska – had only one ticket, and that was in a car for driving without proof of insurance. In fact, Cook didn’t even own a prosthetic limb for his left forearm, which he lost in an accident when he was 5 years old.

“I’ve lost a couple million dollars of income since I stopped driving,” Cook says. “This dispute has cost me about everything.”

He bought his first truck in 1983 to drive for his lumber company. “At that time, if you could do the job, you did the job – it didn’t matter if you were missing an arm,” he says. “I hauled logs and cut my own timber. I did everything in my timber company and never had any trouble in the entire time of my driving.”

Cook might still be driving had he not picked a fight with a state of Oregon transportation official, who took umbrage with the one-armed driver. Still, the regulations were on Cook’s side, provided he could demonstrate safe operation of his truck with one arm. In fact, the first time he was cited, Cook went to court and had his citation overturned because the judge said he met the qualifications.

After a second citation, however, the rules changed. Another judge decided that Oregon could interpret the federal transportation regulations the way it saw fit, and Oregon told Cook to get a prosthetic or get off the highway. The state had the full support of the U.S. DOT, which sent its own lawyers in to argue against the rogue driver.

Cook, who is appealing that decision, could buy an expensive prosthetic and demonstrate his driving abilities under the FMCSA’s Skill Performance Evaluation Certificate program. But Cook says that makes little sense because he’s never used a prosthetic and such a device might get in the way. Besides, there’s a principle at stake.

“It’s absolutely wrong,” Cook says. “If I put a prosthetic on, I would be dangerous on the highway. I use my arm as another hand. My left arm is a hand. I would lose all the mobility I’ve had since childhood by just putting on a prosthetic.”

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