The system to prevent truckers with dangerous medical conditions and diseases from driving large commercial trucks is broken
On Monday, I wrote about my recent appearance on the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley as a truck accident attorney expert on the topic of truckers with serious medical conditions who shouldn’t be behind the wheel. And yesterday, I shared how this rips apart the lives of real people, and discussed an actual truck wreck case I litigated involving Patrick Nunez, a husband and father who was tragically killed by a truck driver with epilepsy who was driving an overloaded gravel hauler on a freeway in Detroit.
Today I want to continue and review what recent studies say on just how many truckers are out there on our roads with very serious – and very dangerous – medical conditions.
To start with the bare minimum, we know there were 2,390 medical exemptions given throughout the U.S. in 2013-14, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA). This means 2,390 truckers with seizures, diabetes, and vision and hearing loss who are allowed to drive big rig commercial trucks throughout the U.S today.
And, beyond this number, we can extrapolate that the numbers of dangerous truckers on our roads today is far, far greater. I know this all too well as an attorney, because I see it in many of the catastrophic truck wreck cases I litigate.
Below I will review some sobering numbers. But it’s important when taking the statistics into account to remember that many, perhaps even most, of the truck drivers with dangerous medical conditions are deliberately answering false to questions about their medical conditions on the forms they’re required to fill out at their mandated DOT health exams.
How many truckers are there today with dangerous medical conditions driving trucks?
Close to 600,000, according to a 2008 study by the Government Accountability Office: Commercial Drivers: Certification Process for Drivers with Serious Medical Conditions. This means 600,000 (at least, as the study is several years old now) truckers on our roads with medical conditions and illnesses that can dangerously impair their ability to safely operate an 80,000-pound commercial truck.
Another interesting study I came across was published in June 2014: Obesity and other risk factors: The National Survey of U.S. Long-Haul Truck Driver Health and Injury by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Obesity does not rise to the level of already qualifying for disability because of a health condition, but it is a huge precursor for many serious illnesses. In 2010, NIOSH researchers collected data from 1,670 long-haul truck drivers at 32 truck stops across the 48 United States. The research revealed that over two-thirds of respondents were obese (69%), as defined by a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, and 17% were morbidly obese (BMI of 40 or higher). In comparison, only one-third of U.S. working adults were reported to be obese and 7% morbidly obese.
The study stated:
“Obesity increases the chance for type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, heart disease, cancer, joint and back pain, and stroke. These health conditions can disqualify a driver from receiving their commercial driver’s license and essentially take away their livelihood.”
In addition, the prevalence of diabetes among truck drivers was twice that of the general population (14% versus. 7%). Twenty-two percent of long-haul truck drivers were either taking medicine for, or had been told they had, high cholesterol and 4% reported they have heart disease.
Trucking attorneys need to consider sleep apnea and driver fatigue in particular, and both are intimately associated with obesity. In fact, obesity is such a red flag for serious health conditions that it can form the basis for an attorney to file a negligent entrustment claim against the trucking company, based upon almost daily reports and information the trucking industry is coming across warning about the risks of sleep apnea and other conditions. Federal regulations, adopted by the states, do not allow the trucking company to delegate away safety. The only way for a trucking company today to not be aware of the dangers of sleep apnea and driver fatigue is for the company to deliberately and intentionally ignore it.
The hardest part of writing a blog post like the one today is to somehow remind readers that these numbers are not abstract. Far too often, they’re closely connected with the accident victims who are seriously injured or killed at the hands of truckers with dangerous medical conditions. For the families that are ripped apart by these very preventable tragedies, these numbers are far more than alarming statistics. These numbers are also people, real people who are loved by their families and who contribute to our communities, like my client Patrick Nunez. They are innocent people caught in a system that is very broken, and that continues to cause massive harms on our society.