Unfit for service

Congress says medical certification is in poor shape.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was again in Congress’ hot seat July 24, this time for oversight of commercial drivers’ health and fitness to drive.

U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, charged the agency with weak supervision of drivers’ medical qualifications and what he repeatedly referred to as the FMCSA’s “lack of will” to complete recommended safety improvements.

He also chastised Administrator John Hill for not appearing at the hearing, leaving Rose McMurray, FMCSA assistant administrator and chief medical officer, as the agency’s sole representative.

The Democrat-controlled Congress has been sharply critical of President Bush’s agency this year, including a contentious hearing on its cross-border trucking pilot program and a Senate appropriations report that was harsh on agency deficiencies.

The medical-certification process for commercial drivers “is no more robust or effective than it was nearly 10 years ago,” Oberstar said. U.S. Rep. Pete DeFazio, D-Ore., called it “a totally failed system.”

House members noted that 25 states allow drivers to self-certify their own medical fitness and that the medical certificate was available for download on the FMCSA site, making it vulnerable to fraud.

McMurray testified that the issue of medical certifications is complicated and that the agency must be cautious that new rules aren’t an unfair burden on states and the trucking industry. “FMCSA maintains a rigorous enforcement program that, in conjunction with state and local partners, is supported by conducting compliance reviews and roadside inspections,” she said.

The hearing was in response to a Government Accountability Office report on the medical certification process released earlier in the week. Commercial drivers with serious medical conditions, such as the early stages of multiple sclerosis, can meet U.S. Department of Transportation requirements, the report found.

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The GAO analysis found 4 percent of CDL holders in the DOT database, or 563,000 drivers, were determined eligible for full federal disability benefits. The 12 states analyzed, representing 135,000 of these drivers, showed 85 percent of that number had active licenses, and most were issued CDLs after federal approval of full disability benefits.

In 2001, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended the FMCSA take eight actions to improve medical certification oversight. None of those actions has been taken, resulting in the NTSB placing oversight of commercial drivers’ medical fitness on its 2003 “Most Wanted” list.

The House committee’s investigations staff recommended FMCSA be directed to:

  • Complete its rulemaking linking medical certification to the commercial licensing process.
  • Develop a medical certification