Few would disagree that Frank Bedell should not have been behind the wheel of the charter bus last Mother's Day when it crashed outside of New Orleans, killing 22 people.
Bedell had serious heart and kidney problems, and had been fired twice for positive drug tests and denied a third job for another positive test. Yet he held a valid commercial driver medical certification and commercial driver's license. At a National Transportation Safety Board hearing yesterday in New Orleans, it became disturbingly apparent how easy it is for a truck or bus driver like Bedell to slip through the cracks in the commercial driver oversight system.
Witness testimony revealed that unlike the FAA's program for commercial pilots, medical certification for commercial truck and bus drivers can be approved by any doctor, chiropractor, nurse practitioner or physician's assistant. There is no special training required. There is no review process of the examination. Exams are often superficial at best, often done by doctors who really have no grasp of the special demands and responsibilities a commercial driver faces. And if a doctor refuses to certify a driver with a medical problem, the driver may "shop around" until he finds one who will sign the medical card after an exam consisting of little more than a handshake.
"There have been cases where drivers have been incredulous that I asked them to disrobe and put on a gown, because that had never happened to them before," testified Dr. Natalie Hartenbaum, an occupational physician with OccuMedix in Maple Glen, PA.
There are two initiatives under way to improve the situation, said Sandy Zywokarte, the nurse in charge of the medical certification program at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The first is a final rule that will revise the medical exam form and the guidance materials. The second is a notice of proposed rulemaking that will propose linking the medical certification process with the CDL process, expected later this year. Another possible solution that arose frequently included a central registry and testing program to certify DOT medical examiners.
Another concern addressed was the fact that there is no central tracking process for failed drug test results. In the case of Frank Bedell, he simply did not list the companies where he had been fired for positive drug tests on his employment application at Custom Bus Charters, the company he was working for at the time of the crash. And if a driver is refused a job for a positive drug test, there's no way to track that. Issues of driver privacy have been a stumbling block in this area, according to hearing testimony.
The CDL program itself was also reviewed. Witnesses testified that the program has attained many of its goals, but there is room for improvement. The recent legislation that established the new Motor Carrier Safety Administration also tightened up some loopholes in the program and gave the new administration authority it had previously lacked.
For instance, says FMCSA's Bob Redmond, in the past, drivers who had their license suspended for a violation in their passenger car could be issued a hardship license that would enable them to keep driving a truck. "Now if a driver is disqualified from operating a motor vehicle they'll be disqualified from operating any vehicle during that time, period."
Tomorrow's hearing will delve into the CDL program in greater detail. Topics to be covered include states' abilities to detect unfit drivers or drivers with multiple violations; CDL suspension and revocation processes in the states; where the CDL program is working and what needs to be improved; and a look at the commercial licensing programs in Europe and Australia.
This is the fourth and final hearing in the NTSB's investigation of commercial vehicle safety. The previous hearings were held on truck safety, technology, and NAFTA issues. The NTSB will review the findings from these hearings and make recommendations to governments, associations and industry on how to improve truck and bus safety.