Our Chicago truck accident attorneys have long been concerned about the number of medically unqualified commercial drivers on the roads today, and the governments utter failure to correct the problem. Now, a recent analysis by News21 (a collegiate journalism group) looked at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Crash Statistics database, and found that from 2002 to 2008, medically unqualified and fatigued drivers were responsible for at least 826 fatal crashes.
Fatigued drivers were included because sleep apnea can cause drivers to fall asleep at the wheel, so truck accidents caused by driver fatigue are often rooted in a driver’s medical condition. The FMCSA estimates that a staggering 36% of commercial drivers suffer from sleep apnea – a condition which, even when caught by a medical examiner, does not necessarily disqualify the driver. Thus, there is no way to say exactly how many of the accidents attributed to fatigue, itself a serious problem in the trucking industry, are in fact medically related. Our Chicago truck accident attorneys, however, have seen enough crashes to know how serious and pervasive the problem has become.
So how, exactly, are these drivers getting medical clearance?
Much of the problem lies in our nations piecemeal medical records system. Although our attorneys have expressed our reservations and concerns with a wholesale online medical database, in the case of commercial drivers it is absolutely essential that such a system be put in place. And the practitioners conducting the exams must themselves be better regulated: as it now stands, drivers often obtain twenty-minute “medical exams” at rundown clinics that have sprung up at truckstops nationwide. These clinics know their job – to certify the driver – and often overlook medical problems, such as existing conditions or poor eyesight, that should disqualify a driver.
Another aspect of the problem is that any medical practitioner – not just doctors of medicine (M.D.’s or D.O.’s) – can issue a medical card for a commercial driver. This includes (among others) chiropractors, certain nurses, physician assistants and osteopathologists. Many of these individuals are certainly not qualified to conduct a full medical exam and determine whether a driver is fit for the road. In addition, there are no training requirements for these practitioners, and nearly no requirements as to what they must look at before issuing a medical certification.
And there is no requirement that the practitioner conducting the exam have ever seen the driver before, or make any effort to obtain the records of those who have. The practitioners are thus forced to – or even willing to – rely solely on the health history as presented by the driver. And should one of these practitioners actually deny a medical certification, there is no reporting system to record that denial. This leaves the driver free to drive on down the road to the next state, town, or truck stop, and simply try again with less open disclosures or a less exacting examiner.
And notwithstanding this lax certification system, many of these drivers are not getting certified at all. In the past five years, 902,416 citations were written for drivers who, when stopped, could not provide a medical certification. This figure represents a shocking 15% of all commercial driver citations written at roadside checks nationwide during this period.
And those who are caught are often released with only a slap on the wrist. There are tighter standards for commercial drivers driving passenger vehicles (such as buses). Such drivers, when caught without a medical certification, have their vehicles held at the scene until proof of certification is provided, or a certified driver arrives.
But other commercial drivers, such as truckdrivers, are simply issued a citation for a fine and sent on their way. It is thus no surprise to our experienced trucking accident attorneys that these unqualified drivers are responsible for so many injuries and deaths. If you or a loved one has been seriously injured or killed in a trucking accident, it is important to talk to an attorney experienced with truck accident cases, such as the lawyers of Passen & Powell. Such an attorney will dig deep in his or her investigation on your behalf, and will be sure to check all possible causes for the crash, including medical certification, compliance with regulations, and others.
In spite of all the problems, and the rising death toll, federal regulators have failed to act to protect the public from medically unqualified drivers. Since 2002, when it first issued a recommendation on the issue, the National Transportation Safety Board has been actively lobbying the FMSCA (a branch of the federal Department of Transportation) to put in place procedures adequate to keep unqualified drivers off the roads. Yet, other than a few minor changes, FMSCA has taken no action on the problem. As NTSB medical officer Mitch Garber stated, “It’s no more difficult for a medically unqualified driver to drive today than when the recommendation was made.” Our Chicago trucking accident lawyers join our voice to that of the NTSB and urge our federal regulators to take this problem seriously. Many, many lives are at stake.
There are plenty of great truck drivers and trucking companies out there who take this problem seriously. However, it only takes one driver, trucking company or medical practitioner to ignore the medical background of a commercial truck driver, which may contribute to catastrophic accidents on our nation’s roadways.
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago truck accident lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.