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FMCSA puts driver OOS hours after GAO issues report on 'disabled' CDL holders

Authorities said driver Johnny Felton struck and killed Illinois Trooper Kyle Deatherage Nov. 26. (Courtesy: ILLINOIS STATE POLICE)

By LYNDON FINNEY
The Trucker Staff

12/3/2012

WASHINGTON — Hours after the General Accounting Office issued a report highlighting cases where drivers had been able to continue driving while drawing Social Security disability for medical, drug and alcohol conditions, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration — in what well may be unprecedented action — declared Georgia-licensed truck driver Johnny Felton Jr., an imminent hazard and ordered him to immediately cease all commercial vehicle driver operations because of his failure to exercise an appropriate duty of care to the motoring public regarding his medical conditions.

It was the first time in at least eight years the agency had released information about an individual driver put out-of-service.

The FMCSA did not immediately return a request to determine if individual drivers had been put out-of-service and news releases not issued.

Most typically, in cases such as this, the agency would take action against the carrier involved or order the driver’s CDL be suspended or revoked, sources said.

Felton, a driver for DOT Transportation Inc., a trucking company based in Mount Sterling, Ill., was ordered by FMCSA to cease operating following a crash on Nov. 26 that resulted in the death of Illinois State Trooper Kyle Deatherage near Litchfield, Ill.

FMCSA immediately placed Felton out-of-service after agency investigators found serious safety concerns surrounding his medical condition and qualifications under his CDL issued by Georgia.

Investigators discovered that Felton failed to disclose to a medical examiner his disqualifying medical conditions, including his medications prescribed in treating those conditions.

The FMCSA did not divulge Felton’s medical condition, saying only that the condition should prevent Felton from driving a commercial vehicle.

"This case sends a clear message that we will use every tool at our disposal to identify and remove from our roads unsafe operators," said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro. "Our agency is committed to raising the bar for commercial vehicle and driver safety."

The GAO report, titled “Selected Cases of Commercial Drivers with Potentially Disqualifying Impairments,” noted that the FMCSA had established a number of key controls designed to prevent commercial driver’s license (CDL) holders from operating commercial vehicles while impaired.

First, drivers are required to undergo regular medical exams by a certified medical examiner.

Second, employers are responsible for drug testing employees at various points of employment.

Third, state and federal roadside-inspection programs are in place to identify impaired drivers and perform other safety checks. If these key controls are operating effectively, they will help identify commercial drivers who are not capable of driving safely, the report said.

However, the GAO said its prior work had found that these controls were vulnerable to abuse or manipulation.

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The GAO said that by matching CDL holders with Social Security disability files, it had found 204 commercial drivers who drove a commercial vehicle as recently as 2011 despite having epilepsy, a disqualifying medical condition characterized by sudden seizures and unconsciousness.

Thirty-one of these drivers, the GAO said, were involved in accidents, demonstrating the threat to public safety posed by medically impaired drivers.

GAO also identified 23 cases where state licensing agencies issued or renewed CDLs for drivers after they were, according to SSA records, diagnosed with epilepsy or had drug or alcohol dependence noted, which could also disqualify them from driving under DOT regulations.

“However, because DOT did not require state licensing agencies to maintain drivers’ medical certifications at the time of GAO’s review, it is unlikely that states knew of the drivers’ conditions. In fact, they were unable to provide medical certifications for any of the 23 individuals,” the report said.

In other cases, the GAO said drivers likely did not divulge medical problems to examiners, who do not have access to Social Security disability records.

The GAO said new federal regulations should prevent reoccurrences of the 23 cases cited.

“States are now required to electronically store medical certificates for new and renewing CDL applicants and will be required to electronically maintain this information for all CDL holders by January 2014. Doing so could help prevent ineligible drivers from obtaining or renewing CDLs in the future,” the report said.

The CDL Drug and Clearinghouse rulemaking that is scheduled to be issued in 2013, will also help cut down on substance and alcohol abusers continuing to drive, the report said.

The rulemaking would create a central database for verified positive controlled substances and alcohol test results for CDL holders and refusals by such drivers to submit to testing.

The GAO issued a report in 2008 which noted that 563,000 CDL holders were also eligible for full federal medical disability benefits, representing 4 percent of CDL holders at that time.

The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at editor@thetrucker.com.

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