As you pass semi trucks on the roads, have you ever wondered exactly what it takes to be qualified to drive an 18-wheeler? The answer may surprise you.
To be “medically qualified” to drive a tractor-trailer truck, interstate commercial drivers need a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) physical every two years. In most states this means that drivers can pay about $30, go to almost any health professional (including doctors, osteopathic physicians, chiropractors, physician assistants and even advance practice nurses), receive a 20-minute check and be back on the road. Health professionals do not have to be trained to give DOT medical checks and the standards for what to check are minimal: blood pressure, urine, breathing, hearing and vision.
And, in some instances, vision checks may only mean letting the health professional know you wear glasses. One driver recalls his physical check at a Travel Center of America truck stop, “I told her I wear glasses, and she OK’d me,” he said, even though his driver’s license didn’t say he was required to wear glasses.
Even more problematic than somewhat cursory checks is that if a truck driver is denied medical certification by one examiner then he can easily go to another. There is no central database that keeps track of valid medical certificates. In fact, medical certificates can be downloaded from the Internet. And some truckers don’t even bother with that – if caught without a certificate they are usually simply given a fine and allowed to continue on their way. In the last five years, almost one million citations have been given to commercial drivers that can’t prove they are medically qualified.
Sounds a bit alarming, does it? Most motor vehicle drivers would think that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) or the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a branch of the DOT, would have already addressed this problem. And they did: in 2002 the NTSB issued a series of recommendations to the FMCSA following a tragic commercial bus crash near New Orleans in 1999 that left over 20 dead.
The NTSB directed that the FMCSA “establish a medical oversight program for all interstate commercial drivers” to “prevent medically unqualified drivers from operating commercial vehicles.” The NTSB has been disappointed with the FMCSA’s largely ineffective response.
According to News21, from 2002 to 2008 there were 826 fatal truck crashes involving medically unqualified or fatigued drivers.
The FMSCA recognizes a need for a comprehensive monitoring and tracking system of medical certificates, but notes that getting there “is complicated.”