Cracks in the system designed to check commercial truck and bus drivers for dangerous medical conditions have allowed people with sleep disorders, heart problems and other serious illnesses to take to the nation's highways, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Sunday.
The U.S. Department of Transportation requires commercial drivers to undergo physicals every two years. However, many doctors are not aware of the specific demands of drivers -- as federal regulations require -- and many drivers simply shop around for examiners willing to give them a clean physical, the newspaper said.
"I think you've nailed a loophole in the licensing process. That's definitely a deficiency in the system," said James Kolstad, who served as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) from 1987 to 1992.
During Kolstad's tenure, the agency released an eight-state study of 182 fatal accidents and found that 10 percent of truck drivers who were killed had a health problem that was a major factor in the accident.
In a more recent case, Frank Bedell drove a tour bus that crashed en route to Mississippi on Mother's Day, killing 22 people. He had been granted a two-year medical certificate nine months earlier, despite a diagnosis of congestive heart failure that should have disqualified him.
Bedell survived the May crash but died of a heart attack in August. The day before the trip, he underwent dialysis.
"Should he have been qualified for two years? Probably not. Should he have been driving the day he was? Obviously not," said Dr. Natalie Hartenbaum of Philadelphia, author of a guide on Department of Transportation medical certification.
"My feeling is, there are a lot of drivers out there who are as bad, or worse, but don't get picked up," she said.
Hartenbaum is scheduled to testify this week at an NTSB hearing in New Orleans on the Bedell crash and related safety issues.
Regulations allow "any licensed medical examiner" to perform the physicals, including physician assistants and chiropractors, without requiring specialized training or demonstrated proficiency.
Hartenbaum serves on a federal regulatory committee that has looked at proposals to improve the screening process.
One would mimic the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) system of having designated examiners perform the physicals.
Critics say it's impractical to apply the FAA system to millions of commercial drivers.