In December, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration took the unusual action of declaring a driver, not a company, an “imminent hazard” and ordered him to cease operating.
Georgia-licensed truck driver Johnny Felton Jr. admitted to losing consciousness before hitting and killing an Illinois state trooper, Kyle Deatherage, in late November.
Investigators discovered that Felton failed to disclose to a medical examiner his disqualifying medical conditions or the medications he was taking to treat them.
Felton drove for DOT Transportation Inc. in Mt. Sterling, Ill. Now Deatherage's family is suing the company.
We don't know what Felton's medical conditions were. The FMCSA redacted that information in the out-of-service order released to the public.
Whatever it was, it didn't keep Felton from getting his medical certification, and it should have. It can't be easy for a doctor to take away a patient's livelihood with the stroke of a pen, but this case shows what can happen if they don't.
Sadly, Felton is not an isolated case.
Last November, the Government Accountability Office released a report on cases of commercial drivers with potentially disqualifying medical problems. It matched CDL holders with Social Security Administration disability files and found more than 200 commercial drivers who were on the road as recently as 2011 despite having the disqualifying medical condition of epilepsy.
Thirty-one of those drivers were involved in accidents.
One of the examples identified was a Mississippi driver who was approved for SSA disability benefits in 2007. Although he informed Social Security that he couldn't drive because of his condition, he renewed his CDL the next year. In 2009, medical professionals told him he should not be driving, but he again renewed his CDL in 2010 and was involved in a crash in a commercial vehicle the same year.
Doctor-shopping by drivers is hardly a new problem. If one doctor won't approve them for a med card, they'll keep trying until they find one who will. Some unscrupulous fleets have even been known to refer drivers to physicians who are willing to overlook disqualifying medical problems.
Woe be to any trucking company in DOT Transportation's circumstances if the attorneys for the victim's family are able to prove that.
Often, however, the problem is simply that the medical professional performing the exam isn't really familiar with the regulations on what disqualifies a driver. And if a driver lies or withholds information, it makes it that much harder. The DOT is working to address the problem. It is now requiring CDL holders to provide a copy of their medical certificates to state driver licensing agencies. And a new rule requires those who perform medical exams for drivers to be trained, tested and certified to a national standard. They're being listed in a new online registry, and by May 21, 2014, drivers must use a certified examiner to get their med card.
It's been a long time coming. Regulators have been working on this problem since 2005, when the agency began public discussions on how to put a registry together. The proposed rule came out in 2008 and the final rule was issued only last year.
There's no way to know for sure if the new rule would have kept Felton off the road, Deatherage alive and Felton's employer out of court, but it's about time the FMCSA did something to address the shortcomings in the system.