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FMCSA waives long standing prohibition against hearing impaired people obtaining CDLs

Written by Steve Gursten Posted March 14th, 2013

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration waived the hearing impairment restriction for 40 of 45 applications, allowing hearing impaired drivers to operate commercial vehicles for the first time decades

truckers with hearing impairmentsOn February 1, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) waived, for the first time in decades, the prohibition on deaf drivers operating commercial vehicles.

As Federal Regulations exist currently, in order to maintain a commercial driver’s license, a driver must be able to hear a “forced whisper” from five feet away.  The current regulations were established 40 years ago.  The FMCSA has the power to waive the requirement, as it did for these 40 drivers, on a case-by-case basis.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) applied to have the prohibition waived for 45 applicants.  The FMCSA waived the requirement for 40 of them.  The NAD CEO, Howard Rosenblum, maintained that this prohibition was a form of institutionalized discrimination against the hearing impaired, and expressed his delight that the prohibition had been waived.

The NAD took the position that communication in trucking has developed such that hearing loss is not critically essential.  It pointed out that drivers increasingly rely on smartphones and other technology as a means to communicate; thus hearing loss would not hamper their ability to safely operate commercial vehicles. The NAD further argued that deaf drivers face fewer distractions behind the wheel.

The smartphone example was a bad one, unfortunately. Because cell phones and texting cause so many trucking accidents, the FMCSA has come out strongly against its use by drivers.

But the underlying message here about providing opportunities for otherwise safe and qualified truck drivers who are hearing impaired is one that we as attorneys do support, as long as it is applied specifically to drivers on a case-by-case basis.  I don’t think anyone here, including the NAD, is saying that being able to hear while driving an 80,000 pound tractor trailer truck is not extremely important to also protect the public.

The waiver is not currently a permanent change to the regulations.

The FMCSA promised that the waiver still promotes the highest level of safety.  The administration emphasized that the exempted drivers would have to reapply for the waiver again in two years.  It has taken the position that the exempted drivers do not compromise public safety.

The waiver was also supported by the American Trucking Association.  The Association has suggested using the newly exempted drivers as a focus group for a long term study.  The Association has proposed eliminating the prohibition permanently pending the results of such a study.

The consequences of this waiver will be closely watched by those in the transportation community and by our own truck accident attorneys of the Roundtable.  We all want the same thing here – to have all truck drivers, hearing impaired or not, to drive safely and to protect the public.

That being said, while we fully support equality for people with disabilities, we believe it’s imperative that truck drivers have the best health possible and that medical regulations for truckers remain strict. The requirements to drive a truck are much more steep and consequential than driving a car. And those who are hearing impaired could be putting themselves and other drivers in danger when they’re operating a fully loaded, 80,000 pound truck and can’t hear each and every distraction that may cross their paths.

For more information about this decision please see:  FMCSA waives hearing standard for 40 deaf drivers.

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About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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