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Preventable Truck Crashes: That Truck Driver Should Have Never Been on the Road in the First Place

April 1, 2010 by Steven M. Gursten

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

Truck accident lawyers 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

Related information:

Bus Accident Lawyers

Truck Driver Lawyers

Previous blogs from “Rules of the Road Every Truck Accident Lawyer Needs to Know” series:

Rules of the Road: Intro for Truck Lawyers

Truck Driver Fatigue

Truck Lawyers: Get Your Hands on Those Discovery Documents!

Investigate the Trucker’s Background and History

Truck Driver Qualification Files

What Truck Accident Lawyers Must Know About Black Boxes

How to Nab the Tired Trucker

Why is the Pre-trip Inspection the Most Violated Safety Rule?

Why Weather is Never an Excuse

How Trucking Companies Dodge Federal Safety Laws

Michigan Auto Law exclusively handles car accident, truck accident and motorcycle accident cases throughout the entire state of Michigan. We have offices in Farmington Hills, Sterling Heights, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Detroit to better serve you. Call (800) 777-0028 for a free consultation from one of our expert attorneys

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One Reply to “Preventable Truck Crashes: That Truck Driver Should Have Never Been on the Road in the First Place”

  1. … the trucking company will come out smelling like roses and they are the ones who need the kick in the pants more than the poor trucker. They are the ones pushing things and they are the ones the truckers are afraid to stand up to. Because after all it’s the trucker who is ultimately responsible for everything, just like being PIC on an aircraft, everything comes back to the driver.

    I remember at the trucking driving school I went to the head instructor telling an auditorium of students that you have to do whatever it takes to get the load there and then regaling them with the story of how the winds were so bad on I-10 in AZ that his trailer was being blown against the guardrail leaving a trail of sparks as he went down the road but he didn’t stop because that load had to get to where it was going. I stood up and asked if he was crazy telling all these kids crap like that. Then I said quite loudly to not listen to that crap and pull off and park in severe weather conditions. The instructors response was to tell me I wasn’t going to be successful in this business. And you know what I found out his attitude prevailed. I can’t tell you the number of times I shut down in bad weather including ice for instance and was yelled out for doing so. Even got threatened to be fired a couple of times for doing that.

    I spent about 11 years driving and you know what? It wasn’t I who had the problem stopping whenever I got tired or in bad weather it was the company. One even went so far as to tell me a load was delayed and it was my fault because if I had only went through there earlier there wouldn’t have been snow and ice. You can’t believe all the times I’ve been told “None of the other trucks had any problem with it, so why do you?” And this is stuff in a lot of cases that was making the news. One was a blizzard from Cincinnati south on 75, lead story on CNN HN yet I got told everyone else was getting through fine. According to CNN the only thing getting through fine was the national guard choppers sent to evacuate stranded motorists.

    So yeah go ahead and go after a driver. With the current HOS its not that hard to do. Under the new rules if we follow them it would mean that we would be too fatigued to be out there a lot of times. I used to get tired and stop for several hours to take a nap then get up and keep driving. Yet I didn’t show that in my log book because if I did I would lose 3 or 4 hours of driving time that I couldn’t afford to lose. So I showed what I drove but did’t show times I stopped for naps so therefore I would be in violation of their 14 hour rule. Would you rather I kept driving when I was too tired to safely do so or stop and get some sleep and fudge my log books to make DOT happy. (You can’t do both and have it work) There is always something you can get them on. But just for the record a PTI according to regs must be a minimum of 15 minutes and that is what it gets. Most don’t know whether it means Pre trip or post trip. I was always taught and did Pre-trip inspections but eventually ran into a couple of companies who said it meant Post trip inspections. So that’s an easy “Get” for you right there. Most everyone does Pre-trip ones.

    Oh and the companies well insulate themselves from any liability going back to the PIC concept. They tell you straight to your face “We want you to run nothing but legal. Don’t every run illegally” and “Shut down if you’re tired or the weather is bad, we don’t want you to risk your safety or anyone’s else’s” but then you get a different story “Off the books” as it were. Phone calls mostly but even occasionally on the QC where its a whole different story. “We need you to get moving this load HAS to be there” and when I say I don’t have the hours I get “Oh well of course we don’t want you to violate HOS BUT this load REALLY needs to be there if there is anyway you can do it” But you know of course what happens if that load isn’t there. Last company I worked for had a lovely policy. They would call your cell constantly with things but if something happens and you bring up said phone calls you get told that if it’s not on the QC it didn’t happen.

    Oh and if you’re interested in trucking safety then you might want to do something about all these states who had decided to ban trucks parking on onramps or offramps. That includes your state btw. Trucks do it all the time but as more states are looking for money they are hitting us with their needs in order to make a buck and the funny thing is it is discriminatory in that they write you a ticket for illegal parking yet its set at a special “Commercial Motor Vehicle” rate so what would cost you in your car 25 bucks costs us a hundred or two. Michigan has it as well. I pull over at the first safe place to do so if I’m getting too tired to drive safely yet the State Police don’t care. In one incident I was in Michigan when I got really sleepy and pulled off onto an onramp. A couple of hours later a Michigan Patrol officer pounded on the side of my truck and when I came up front gave me a lecture about parking on his offramps and onramps then asked for my logbook. Of course I was so tired all I did was pull off and crawl into the back to sleep so didn’t bring it up to date as to that time and he wrote me a ticket but you get the idea. In Virginia, Illinois, Ohio and numerous other states they have parties where a bunch of SP units converge on the onramps and even rest areas for trucks on the ramps in and out all to harass the driver.

    The bottom line is does anyone care about there so called concern for tired truckers being on the road or not? Because it sure seems in recent years the or not part is more applicable.

    I guess I’m done here. I no longer drive a truck…

    Oh one last thing, I’ve never heard log books referred to as “Lie Books.” Try “Joke Books” since they’re a joke or “The Funny Papers” again since they are a joke and finally “Creative Writing Class” since that is what they are as well.

    There is just no way we’re going to log an hour and a half to get through Chicago when we can log 15 or 30 minutes which is the driving time it should take.

    Well you have my 2 cents for whatever it is worth

    Ron

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