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House committee probes medically unfit truckers
Unfit Drivers WX101 5514847
In this May 9, 1999 file photo, emergency workers remove the body of one of the victims of a bus wreck in New Orleans. A chartered bus carrying members of a casino club on a Mother's Day gambling excursion crashed killing 22 people. The National transportation Safety Board said the bus driver suffered life-threatening kidney and heart conditions but held a valid license and medical certificate. Members of Congress are exploring safety recommendations aimed at keeping medically unfit commercial truck drivers off highways. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has called officials of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to a Thursday hearing to explain why the agency hasn't fully implemented recommendations made nearly seven years ago - photo by Associated Press
    WASHINGTON — It’s so easy to fabricate the medical certificates required to operate commercial trucks on the nation’s highways that there’s almost no incentive for truckers to obtain a legitimate document, according to a congressional study.
    The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s study — expected to be released at a hearing Thursday — found so few controls over how drivers obtain medical certificates that it’s ‘‘relatively easy for a motivated commercial driver to circumvent the physical examination requirement.’’ Nor is there any database or central repository which would allow state inspectors to verify the legitimacy of a medical certificate.
    ‘‘Because so few attempts are made to authenticate a certificate, there is little risk that a driver will be caught if he or she forges or adulterates a certificate,’’ according to the report, which was obtained by The Associated Press.
    The Transportation Committee’s study was based on a sample of 614 medical certificates obtained from truck drivers at roadside inspections in California, Illinois and Ohio. The committee’s staff attempted to contact the examiners named on the medical certificates but could only verify 407 as valid.
    One Ohio doctor contacted by the committee said forgery of medical certificates is so commonplace ‘‘no one gets alarmed by it anymore.’’
    The committee called officials of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to explain at the hearing why the agency hasn’t fully implemented recommendations made nearly seven years ago on how to keep medically unfit truck drivers off the road. The witness list also included officials from the National Transportation Safety Board, which made the recommendations.
    The NTSB made the recommendations in September 2001 in response to a 1999 motorcoach accident in New Orleans that killed 22, and put them on the agency’s ‘‘most wanted’’ list two years later.
    In the New Orleans motorcoach accident, the NTSB said the bus driver, Frank Bedell, 46, suffered life-threatening kidney and heart conditions but held a valid license and medical certificate. A passenger recounted seeing the driver slumped in his seat moments before the crash.
    Tractor-trailer and bus drivers have suffered seizures, heart attacks or unconscious spells while behind the wheel. Such illnesses have been a critical factor in thousands of serious truck accidents.
    The NTSB recommended that examiners who certify drivers as medically fit be qualified and know what to look for, and that a system be set up to track medical certificate applications and prevent drivers from doctor shopping.
    Hundreds of thousands of drivers carry commercial licenses even though they also qualify for full federal disability payments, according to a U.S. safety study disclosed by The Associated Press earlier this week.
    The Government Accountability Office said in the study that 563,000 commercial drivers were determined by the Veterans Affairs Department, Labor Department or Social Security Administration to also be eligible for full disability benefits over health issues. It said disability doesn’t necessarily mean a driver is unfit to operate a commercial vehicle, but its investigators found alarming examples that raised doubts about the safety of the nation’s highways. They identified more than 1,000 drivers with vision, hearing or seizure disorders, which generally would prohibit a trucker from obtaining a valid commercial license.
    Truckers violating federal medical rules have been caught in every state, according to an AP review of 7.3 million commercial driver violations compiled by the Transportation Department in 2006, the latest data available. Texas, Maryland, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Alabama, New Jersey, Minnesota and Ohio were states where drivers were sanctioned most frequently for breaking medical rules, such as failing to carry a valid medical certificate. Those 12 states accounted for half of all such violations in the United States.

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