According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released this week, more than half a million commercial vehicle drivers are currently receiving full disability benefits. While GAO admits that some of these drivers should be able to safely operate their vehicles, the report indicates that many of these drivers did not receive a full medical evaluation, with a number of them providing fraudulent medical documents and forged signatures.
Commercial drivers are required to undergo a medical examination every two years. As part of the physical, an examiner must review the driver’s medical history while performing tests for vision, hearing and several medical conditions. Failing one or more of the examinations does not automatically preclude a driver from receiving a license, however.
“Notwithstanding these written regulations, medical examiners must still exercise judgment in determining whether individuals are medically fit to drive commercial vehicles, such as people whose serious medical conditions make them eligible for federal disability benefits,” the report stated. “Not all serious medical conditions interfere with the safe operation of a commercial vehicle. However, some serious medical conditions can and should disqualify a driver from being medically certified according to DOT (Dept. of Transportation) regulations.”
GAO’s analysis of commercial license data from DOT and medical disability data from the Social Security Administration, Veterans Affairs, Office of Personnel Management, and Department of Labor found that approximately 563,000 individuals with CDL’s are eligible for full federal benefits due to medical conditions, representing more than 4% of all CDLs in the DOT database. Over 1,000 were diagnosed with vision, hearing or seizure disorders, GAO said.
GAO then closely examined 12 states-- California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin—representing a total of 135,000 drivers, of which about 85%, or 114,000, had a current CDL while also receiving full federal disability benefits. Approximately 85,000 were issued the CDL after the driver was approved for full federal benefits.
Fifteen commercial drivers were selected by GAO for detailed investigation, and the agency interviewed the driver, their employer and their physician to determine whether the medical condition should have prevented the driver from obtaining a valid CDL.
“On the basis of our investigation of these 15 cases, we identified instances where careful medical examinations did not occur,” the report stated. “Most states do not require commercial drivers to provide medical certifications to be issued a CDL. Instead, many states only require individuals to self-certify that a medical examiner granted them a medical certification allowing them to operate commercial vehicles, thus meeting the minimum federal requirements.
“In addition, our investigations found that commercial drivers produced fraudulent documentation regarding their medical certification,” the report continued. “Specifically, we found instances where commercial drivers forged a medical examiner’s signature on a medical certification form.”
None of the eight recommendations for medical examinations made in 2001 by the National Transportation Surface Board (NTSB)--following a bus crash that killed 22 in Louisiana--have been implemented by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), GAO said. The recommendations are as follows:
- Individuals performing medical examinations for drivers are qualified to do so and are educated about occupational issues for drivers
- Every prior application by an individual for medical certification is recorded and reviewed
- Medical certification regulations are updated periodically to permit trained examiners
- Individuals performing examinations have specific guidance and a readily identifiable source of information for questions on such examinations
- The review process prevents, or identifies and corrects, the inappropriate issuance of medical certification
- Enforcement authorities can identify invalid medical certification during safety inspections and routine stops
- Enforcement authorities can prevent an uncertified driver from driving until an appropriate medical examination takes place
- Mechanisms for reporting medical conditions to the medical certification and reviewing authority and for evaluating these conditions between medical certification exams are in place, and that individuals, health care providers, and employers are aware of these mechanisms
“Over the past several years, NTSB has reported on serious flaws in the medical certification process of commercial drivers,” GAO said. “NTSB stated that these flaws can lead to increased highway fatalities and injuries for commercial vehicle drivers, their passengers, and the motoring public.”
“The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is aggressively pursuing a number of program initiatives to support and strengthen our medical program, including the advancement of two important rulemakings that we expect to be published in the next few months,” FMCSA Administrator John Hill said today in response to the report. “These include a pending regulation to establish training, testing and certification for people performing USDOT physicals and a final rule to merge medical requirements with the Commercial Driver’s License process.”