Truck licenses for the partially blind concern safety advocates

Traffic safety advocates say partially-blind truck drivers may be putting other people on the road in danger.

Federal vision requirements prohibit truck drivers with poor sight from operating commercial motor vehicles, but this hasn’t stopped the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) from ramping up exemptions for hundreds of drivers who can only see out of one eye.

Disability advocates are praising the move by the FMCSA, but truck safety groups are up in arms over what they see as a reckless decision that could endanger other drivers.

“When you’ve lost half of your vision, that’s going to be a concern,” said John Lannen, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition.

“You’ve got to have a full range of vision and you’ve got to be able to hear the things around you, including emergency vehicles,” he said.

Since August, the FMCSA has approved or is in the process of approving commercial drivers licenses for more than 100 truck drivers who are partially blind.

The latest round of exemptions came Monday when they proposed giving commercial drivers licenses to 33 truck drivers who suffer from poor vision.

But partially-blind truck drivers are not the only ones receiving these exemptions. The FMCSA has also exempted drivers who are deaf and prone to seizures from rules that would otherwise prevent them from driving.

The FMCSA says these drivers with disabilities who qualify for exemptions do not pose any additional risks to other drivers and “would likely achieve a level of safety that is equivalent to or greater than the level that would be achieved absent such exemption.”

Industry groups like the American Trucking Associations and Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association point out that the FMCSA doesn't grant these exemptions to just any driver, but is "very thorough" when screening drivers with disabilities.

But that doesn’t sit well with safety advocates.

"We worry that in emergency situations drivers with poor vision are going to be less equipped to react properly and avoid the crash,” said Henry Jasny, vice president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

While a truck driver who is blind may be able to manage in normal driving conditions, they may have difficulties navigating through heavy traffic, during storms or at night, Lannen said.

“Do they really understand the impact this has on public safety?” Lannen asked.

“The conditions aren’t always going to be perfect and the driver is not always going to be well rested, and you’re only compounding the issue by exempting drivers with poor vision on top of all of that,” he said.

But disability advocates say truck drivers who are blind or deaf deserve the same opportunities as those who aren’t, as long as they can operate the truck safely.

Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, pointed to a study that found truck drivers with FMCSA vision exemptions are 20 percent less likely to be involved in crashes. 

She said truck drivers with disabilities should be considered for exemptions on a case-by-case basis, rather than enforcing “overly broad” safety standards that rely on outdated stereotypes.

“The risks these disabilities are said to pose have been based on stereotypes and prejudices that are considered common sense and never challenged,” Golden said.

Meanwhile, Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, said truck drivers with hearing impairments have proven to be at least as safe, if not more so, than other drivers on the roads.

“The assumption has always been that hearing is necessary to drive safely, but studies have shown that to be untrue,” Rosenblum said.

But Jasny said the FMCSA is running an “experiment on the roads” that is putting other drivers at risk.

"The agency has decided the risk is worth taking, but we’re not so sure,” Jasny said. “We don’t think with over 33,000 fatalities a year that we should be taking any greater risk with public safety than we have to."