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Exemptions, But Not Necessarily Jobs, For Vision-Impaired Drivers

July 27, 1999

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The Federal Highway Administration will continue to exempt qualified truck drivers from vision rules, but the Supreme Court says that carriers don't have to hire those drivers. "We never said this was a guarantee of a job," says Sandra Zywokarte, Office of Motor Carrier Research and Standards.

FHWA just added 33 names to the list of drivers it has approved for exemptions. Another 33 are pending and 23 have licenses. Federal rules require professional truck drivers to have at least 20/40 vision in both eyes. Under this program, drivers with severely impaired vision in one eye can obtain exemptions if they meet vision standards in the other eye, have at least three years of professional driving experience with no serious citation or crashes, and agree to annual vision exams. The exemptions are renewable after two years.
Despite the strict requirements, however, many carriers have been reluctant to hire the exempted drivers -- mainly because they fear liability suits if a driver is involved in an accident. And last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor.
The decision involved several cases, but one, brought by a truck driver, specifically addressed vision exemptions. Hallie Kirkingburg, an experienced trucker with a good driving record, is nearly blind in one eye. When his employer, Albertson's, discovered his vision impairment, they fired him, despite the fact that he had obtained an exemption from FHWA. He sued, charging that Albertson's had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The Supreme Court said ADA doesn't apply in this case. For one thing, it said, by setting vision standards FHWA had determined the visual acuity needed for safe operation of commercial motor vehicles. Employers have a right to insist upon full compliance with those basic medical standards.

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Moreover, the vision exemption program is an experiment intended primarily to gather information for possible changes to the vision standard. ADA, the court said, does not require employers to participate in experiments.
Zywokarte said the decision will not affect the vision exemption program.

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