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Hearing impaired truck drivers?!

April 13, 2013 by Steven M. Gursten

FMCSA waives prohibition against hearing impaired people receiving CDLs

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently waived  the prohibition on deaf drivers operating commercial vehicles.

Specifically, the FMSCA waived the hearing impairment restriction for 40 of 45 applications, allowing hearing impaired drivers to operate commercial vehicles for the first time in four decades.

Under current Federal regulations, a truck driver must be able to hear a “forced whisper” from five feet away in order to obtain and maintain commercial driver’s license (CDL).

The current regulations were established 40 years ago.  But the FMCSA has the power to waive the requirement on a case-by-case basis, as it did for these hearing impaired drivers.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) applied to have the prohibition waived for 45 applicants.  The NAD CEO, Howard Rosenblum, maintained that this prohibition was a form of institutionalized discrimination against the people with hearing impairments.

The NAD took the position that communication in trucking has developed such that hearing loss is not a critical issue. It pointed out that drivers increasingly rely on smartphones and other technology to communicate and that hearing loss would not hamper their ability to safely drive commercial trucks.

The smartphone example was not the best argument. Cell phones and texting cause many truck accidents. And truckers are banned by law from using cell phones behind the wheel.

Our attorneys understand that NAD’s underlying message is about providing opportunities for otherwise safe and qualified truck drivers. As lawyers who handle a large number of the serious truck accident injuries around Michigan, we have seen the consequences of these cases. We regularly lecture at legal seminars on how to litigate these cases, and we have long worked on making trucks safer on Michigan roads, so it is a message that we support.

Here’s my caveat: it needs to be applied to qualified truck drivers on a case-by-case basis.

We know from actual cases and real legal experience, being able to hear while driving an 80,000 pound tractor trailer  – or an 80,000 pound moving brick wall on the public roads – is extremely important to protecting everyone’s safety.

The FMCSA promised that the waiver still promotes the highest level of safety, and stated that the exempted drivers would have to reapply for the waiver in two years.

Not only as lawyers, but as safety advocates as well, we believe that the first priority with this (as with all federal regulations) should be to ensure that truck drivers are qualified to drive safely and to protect the public.  The requirements, and the dangers,to driving a large truck safely are much more advanced than driving a car.  Supporting  people with disabilities, and of course those who are hearing impaired, could be putting the rest of the public  in danger if the truck drivers cannot hear each and every sound and distraction that may arise.

That final point is an important one.  This is as much about protecting the truck driver as it is about protecting people on public roadways.  Ironically, a great number of my most serious truck accident cases that I have handled as a lawyer involve helping seriously injured truck drivers when the crash was caused by a passenger car. The reality is that many truck accidents are caused by other people on the roads, not the truckers. Anyone who has driven a truck or litigated these cases in court will tell you stories about some of the dangerous decisions that other drivers will sometimes make around trucks.  Being able to hear and hopefully avoid these crashes is just as important.

Here’s more information about this decision: FMCSA waives hearing standard for 40 deaf drivers.


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