Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Drivers Truckin' Despite Disabilities

See this article by that cutesy title. It begins:

If your daily commutes on I-95 were not scary enough, consider this: the federal government has found "hundreds of thousands" of bus and big-rig drivers have serious medical conditions.

Connecticut officials, including the state troopers who patrol the state's roads, say the issue is not a prominent one here.

The study, compiled recently by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found "hundreds of thousands of tractor-trailer and bus drivers in the U.S. carry commercial driver's licenses despite also qualifying for full federal disability payments for medical conditions" involving such things as heart disorders, sleep apnea and diabetes. U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4, said Congress' Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing on this issue Thursday.

"We need to take steps to ensure those drivers who shouldn't be driving, aren't," said Shays, whose district includes most of Fairfield County. "I am looking forward to working on a bipartisan basis to improve our transportation safety."

The GAO report is here. I think it's worth taking note of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's comments on the report, as summarized by the GAO:

FMCSA stated the following:

• Disability, even full disability associated with a diagnosis, does not necessarily mean that an individual is medically unfit to operate a commercial vehicle.

• Disability is not related necessarily to when a medical condition occurred or recurs. The onset of a disease or disabling medical condition is more relevant to medical fitness than when the disability benefits and payments began. As an example, a fully disabled individual may have accommodated to the disability and may improve with treatment while receiving lifelong disability payments.

• In general, a medical diagnosis alone is not adequate to determine medical fitness to operate a commercial vehicle safely. As an example, multiple sclerosis, while disabling, has several progressive phases, and is not necessarily disqualifying.

In addition, FMCSA did not believe that we accurately characterized the 15 cases where careful medical evaluations did not occur. FMCSA stated that this implies these drivers were evaluated by someone for medical fitness for duty, but in 9 cases, the driver was not certified or not evaluated by a medical examiner.

We all want safe roads, but the comments of the FMCSA -- an agency whose entire mission is to keep the roads safe (and which therefore will often undervalue the interests of people with disabilities, as I've argued here) -- suggest we should all take a deep breath before going out and doing anything extreme based on this GAO report. Lots of drivers with lots of disabilities are going to be perfectly safe, and while others will pose risks, lots of drivers without disabilities pose risks, too. There is no such thing as zero risk, so the question has to be one of balancing risks and benefits. That balance is extremely unlikely to favor excluding all individuals with disabilities from driving trucks -- though the tone of some of the coverage of the GAO report suggests support for such a broad exclusion.



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