Rule of the Road No. 10: Truck accident lawyer says get medically impaired truck drivers off our roads
There are close to 600,000 commercial truck drivers with dangerous medical conditions — and who qualify for full federal disability payments — driving tractor-trailers on the roads today, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office study. This means 600,000 truckers on our roads with epilepsy, heart disease and various other illnesses and injuries that can greatly impair their ability to operate an 80,000-pound commercial truck. These truck drivers share our highways and put our families in danger of completely preventable and sometimes catastrophic truck accidents.
Already, more than 5,000 Americans are killed every year in truck accidents, and getting truckers with medical conditions so dangerous that they’re already considered impaired by the federal government off of our roads is an important – and common sense – first step.
Michigan is among the top 12 states sanctioned for breaking medical safety rules for truck drivers, such as failing to require truckers to carry a valid medical certificate, said a review by the Associated Press of 7.3 million commercial driver violations compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
These statistics are alarming. They show that many trucking companies are turning a blind eye to federal regulations that require truckers to be in good physical condition when driving.
Truck Accident Lawyers Must Know Basic Physical Requirements for Truckers
Lawyers handling truck accidents must know the basic physical requirements a trucker must meet to drive a truck. These can be found at 49 CFR ? 391.41. In short: truck drivers are required to not have any impairments of the foot, leg, hand, arm, or finger, and they cannot be suffering from epilepsy, psychiatric conditions, or high blood pressure that could potentially interfere with operation of a commercial motor vehicle, insulin dependent diabetes, or specific cardiovascular or respiratory conditions.
Drivers must also have binocular vision corrected to at least 20/40, with 70 degree horizontal field of vision, ability to recognize colors of traffic signals, and ability to hear a forced whisper at five feet. Furthermore, commercial truck drivers may not use medications without a physician being aware of their duties and advising that the medication would not adversely affect their ability to operate a commercial motor vehicle.
In 2008, I handled the the tragic case of a young husband and father who was killed at the hands of a grossly negligent truck driver who was on epilepsy medication. In Nunez v. Utica Transit Mix, the epileptic trucker was speeding in his fully-loading gravel hauler that was out of service in five different ways when he killed my client. This trucker should have never been on the road in the first place. This trucker and his employer clearly ignored 49 CFR ? 391.41 – and dozens of other safety laws.
Take Advantage of Requirements of DOT Compliant Medical Exam
When lawyers begin delving further into ? 391, they’ll find that subparts 43-47 all specify the requirements for a Department of Transportation (DOT) compliant medical examination. If the medical examiner feels that the truck driver is physically able to operate a commercial motor vehicle, the medical examiner may approve the driver’s certification status for a period of three months, six months, one year, or any other sufficient period capped at two years.
Note this important official interpretation found under ?391.45 which reads:
Must a driver who is returning from an illness or injury undergo a medical examination even if his current medical certificate has not expired?
Guidance: The FMCSRs do not require an examination in this case unless the injury or illness has impaired the driver’s ability to perform his normal duties. However, the motor carrier may require a driver returning from any illness or injury to take a physical examination. But, in either case, the motor carrier has the obligation to determine if an injury or illness renders the driver medically unqualified.
Trucking Company Must Determine if the Trucker is Fit to Drive
This interpretation puts the onus on the trucking company to determine if its drivers are medically qualified to drive a truck. It is no longer an excuse to say “I didn’t know” or “the medical examiner said he was OK six months before.”
Let’s use an example to better understand how this works:
Driver John Doe underwent a physical examination on January 2, 2008, and was certified to operate a commercial truck by a physician for one year. In June of 2008, John caves in to his wife’s requests and takes the weekend off to paint the exterior of his home, including the second story. As John begins to paint the second floor, he falls off the top of his ladder, which is positioned 15 feet above the ground. John lands awkwardly in the accident and badly injures his right ankle. The pain is tremendous, so John visits his family doctor who then prescribes John with a highly potent pain medication, with side effects including fatigue, drowsiness and nausea. The next day, John reports to dispatch as usual and is assigned a load covering over 1,500 miles — all while under the influence of his prescribed pain medication. He briefly mentions to his dispatcher that he fell off a ladder this weekend while painting, the dispatcher replies “you’re fine though right? Ok, good, off you go!” John Doe goes on the road and falls asleep while driving four hours into his trip, causing a fatal truck accident that kills someone.
Under the current interpretation. John was not required to undergo another physical before driving. His employer had the obligation to require him to perform another examination, but only if the employer determined that he was medically unqualified. So essentially, within the time that John is in the office to get dispatched, someone within the company is obligated to make a determination of a driver’s medical qualification.
In other words, any doubt or uncertainty as to whether someone can drive or not must be resolved by the trucking company before putting a driver behind the wheel. It is a rule that myself, and many other experienced truck litigation attorneys call the “better safe than sorry” rule.
– Steven M. Gursten is a partner of Michigan Auto Law. He is past president of the American Association for Justice Truck Litigation Group, and has received the top reported trial verdict in Michigan for truck accidents. Last year, Steve was named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly Leader in the Law for his efforts in promoting truck safety in Michigan.
– Photo courtesy of Creative Commons, by trekkyandy
Previous blogs from “Rules of the Road Every Truck Accident Lawyer Needs to Know” series:
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