Truck drivers to be subjected to more testing

Byline: Kelly Cernetich

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced recently that it will conduct more rigorous random verifications of commercial driver's medical examiner's certificates to ensure that drivers are medically qualified to be on the road.

Certificates are issued by doctors or nurses after drivers obtain physicals as required by the Department of Transportation in their states. The certificates are good for 24 months, except for drivers with medical conditions, such as heart disease, that need more frequent monitoring.

Random checks for drivers' medical certificates will be done at safety audits, roadside inspections and compliance reviews to deter drivers from using fraudulent certificates, according to the safety administration.

This complements another initiative that the safety administration announced in August, where regulations were amended to require that interstate commercial driver's license holders provide copies of their medical certification to state driver licensing agencies.

Jay Leifheit, safety director for the Roaring Spring-based motor carrier company Smith Transport Inc., said that before the safety administration created regulations to keep records of drivers' information, a driver could print and fill out a medical card themselves to prove they were safe to drive.

"When they got pulled over [for an inspection], police were none the wiser," Leifheit said.

According to the safety administration, new regulations published Dec. 1, 2008, link the medical certificates to commercial licensure, meaning that an expired physical would allow state transportation departments to downgrade the driver's license from Class A commercial to Class D - the type of license held by everyday drivers.

Jeff Kovacik, safety manager for Ward Trucking in Altoona, said the initiative was supposed to be fully implemented earlier in 2012, but then the date was pushed back to January 2014.

Kovacik said the new system will eliminate the need for drivers to carry their medical certificates with them on the road, and that the information will be linked to their driver's license through PennDOT, should they be stopped.

He said the basis of the initiative was not only to prevent fraud, but also to encourage drivers to renew their medical evaluations far enough in advance of the expiration date so commercial drivers wouldn't be downgraded.

"They're pretty strict with it [the certifications], in Pennsylvania anyway," he said.

Kovacik said the new regulations alert management as well as drivers when drivers' physicals are about to expire.

"Let's face it - some guys don't read their mail and miss some of the notifications," he said.

Kovacik said he wants drivers to get their cards renewed in a timely fashion, adding that Ward's policy is to notify drivers 90, 60 and 30 days in advance of expiration so they have fair warning.

Leifheit said another issue that has arisen is that medical self-certification regulations were not uniform across the country.

He said some states required the information to be sent via email, while others had to fax it or deliver it in person.

"It varies greatly from state to state," he said, adding it has been an inconvenience for some companies.

A provision in MAP-21, or "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century," now standardizes the self-certification process. The law, signed by President Barack Obama in July, is a transportation safety law that will help with investments to improve the country's transportation infrastructure.

Leifheit said under the law, all drivers are now to submit medical information electronically to their respective state's Department of Motor Vehicles.

He said with databases across the country connected, drivers' information will be more easily accessible.

"We anticipate a few bumps in the road," he said, but it will benefit drivers, motor carriers and safety inspectors when it's done.