Trucking Law: Severe physical setback might not end career

Updated Oct 18, 2021

The Trucking Law segment is a monthly feature on Overdrive, in which we pose commonly asked questions from truckers and owner-operators to legal experts. In this installment, Dr. Alex Underwood talks about how, even after life-altering experiences, drivers can return to work. Find all Trucking Law installments via this link.

As long as a physical condition is not progressive, but fixed, such as an amputated limb, a person might qualify for a Skill Performance Evaluation and be found able to drive professionally.As long as a physical condition is not progressive, but fixed, such as an amputated limb, a person might qualify for a Skill Performance Evaluation and be found able to drive professionally.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has come a long way in acknowledging that drivers with certain disabilities are safe to be on the road. Many drivers come to see me after an accident, whether it be on the road or otherwise, in which they have lost a limb, an eye or their hearing. Fortunately, even after having a life-altering experience, many drivers are able to return to commercial driving.

According to federal regulations: “A person is physically qualified to drive a CMV if that person has no loss of a foot, a leg, a hand, or an arm, OR has been granted a Skill Performance Evaluation certificate … [and] has no impairment of a hand or finger which interferes with prehension or power grasping.”

In order to qualify to drive with a missing limb or deficit to a hand, finger or leg, the driver must take a few extra steps. The condition affecting the driver must be fixed and nonprogressive. An amputated hand, by definition, is fixed. The condition cannot progress or worsen. In some missing-limb cases, a driver is required to be fitted with and wear an appropriate prosthetic device.

Dr. Alexander E. Underwood works at KT Health Clinic, a mile from I-44’s Exit 80 near Springfield, Missouri. He can be reached at 417-832-8678 or mail@kthealthclinic.com.Dr. Alexander E. Underwood works at KT Health Clinic, a mile from I-44’s Exit 80 near Springfield, Missouri. He can be reached at 417-832-8678 or mail@kthealthclinic.com.

Nervous system diseases such as multiple sclerosis are progressive. While a patient may have a disease such as MS, neuropathy, myasthenia gravis, etc., that causes a deficit in only one extremity, that driver still would not qualify to apply for a Skill Performance Evaluation.

During your DOT physical, your examiner will determine whether or not you qualify for an SPE. Certain impairments such as a missing finger or toe will not require you to obtain an SPE along with your regular DOT medical exam. If you’re missing several fingers, the medical examiner will decide whether the deficit interferes with prehension or power grasping. As long as you can perform normal driving tasks such as gripping a steering wheel and operating other controls, an SPE wouldn’t be required.

If the medical examiner determines there is a fixed deficit but you’re otherwise medically qualified, the examiner will issue a medical card with the stipulation that you receive an SPE. After completing your physical, you must obtain the SPE application package from FMCSA’s website.

Once that’s filled out and you’re examined by a board-qualified or -certified physiatrist or orthopedic surgeon, you’ll submit the packet. The application asks for a fair amount of detail regarding your driving plans, such as transmission type, number of speeds, types of trailers to be pulled and any modifications to the truck to accommodate you. Many questions relate to the medical evaluations and recommendations that will have been completed by this point.

Over time, I have certified many drivers that went on to obtain an SPE. FMCSA says it has granted more than 3,000 SPE certificates to truckers. Whether it is from a congenital limb defect or an accidental amputation of a hand or leg, many drivers go on to have a successful career, even with physical limitations.

For further information on the SPE, call the program in Washington, D.C., at (202) 366-4001, or email FMCSAMedical@dot.gov.

The program maintains two regional service centers, each serving two districts: Eastern and Midwest states, Matteson, Illinois, (708) 283-3577; and Southern and Western states, Atlanta, Georgia, (404) 327-7371.

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