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Should FMCSA lift restrictions on deaf drivers?

Advocates blast early 20th century regulations as rooted in stereotypes

CDL trainer Autumn Daniel instructing a driver trainee. (Photo: Rusty Dillon).

A lack of support from major trucking organizations, state licensing agencies and an influential medical group could impede efforts by disability rights advocates to lift commercial driver’s license (CDL) restrictions for truck drivers who cannot hear.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) petitioned the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in December to propose a rule repealing requirements that commercial truck drivers be able to hear. NAD’s petition also requests that FMCSA amend the requirement that interstate drivers be able to speak, as well as a rule barring interpreters from the CDL skills-test process.

The petition — which is still being considered by FMCSA, a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) source confirmed — generated roughly 140 public comments, including many from anonymous commenters both supporting and opposing NAD. Among those who initially weighed in are commercial driving trainers that warn lifting the CDL restrictions would make training less safe

But later responses filed before the comment period expired in February included either opposition or significant concerns from prominent lobbying groups such as the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), and the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

Driving restrictions: 82 years and counting

NAD contends that the current federal hearing requirement “dates to a time of misguided stereotypes about the abilities and inabilities of deaf and hard of hearing individuals and the rules should now be changed.”

It points out that restrictions on deaf and hard-of-hearing people driving trucks began in 1938 and were initially applied to their ability to drive cars. Today, however, 48 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people drive in the U.S., according to the association.

In addition, since 2012, more than 400 deaf and hard-of-hearing people have received FMCSA exemptions to drive trucks and have excellent track records, according to NAD.

“The use of exemptions was intended as a trial to further assess the already proven safe record of driving within the deaf and hard of hearing community, and this experiment shows that it is high time to lift the restrictions.”

Accommodation, litigation, emergency vehicles

Among ATA’s concerns in opposing that change, however, is that if the FMCSA were to remove the hearing standard from the medical qualifications, training providers and carriers could see a significant jump in the number of deaf or hard-of-hearing truck driver job applicants.

“Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals pose a unique challenge to maintaining regulatory compliance and workplace safety, and motor carriers could be overwhelmed with such an increase,” ATA contended.

ATA noted that some carriers working to accommodate deaf or hard-of-hearing drivers who had received a federal exemption from medical requirements placed them into dedicated fleets with established routes. One carrier introduced such a driver to customers along the route beforehand “to build customer awareness” of the driver’s disability. However, ATA stated, “not all motor carriers can achieve this level of accommodation.”

ATA cited potential litigation costs for carriers as an issue as well. Rolling back regulations that address alleged safety hazards attributed to deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers “would almost certainly raise the cost of litigation as more individuals claim violations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and its various state counterparts,” according to ATA. “The unintended consequences that could come out of a decision to approve NAD’s position would undoubtedly lead to regulatory uncertainty, increased litigation, and potentially increased costs in the trucking sector.”

OOIDA, like the ATA and others, opposed the petition based on a lack of scientific data showing that repealing the hearing requirement would improve safety. “As such, OOIDA recommends that FMCSA maintains the current exemption program until sufficient safety data can be gathered and analyzed.”

Opposition to the petition by ACOEM could be particularly troubling for NAD’s chances of moving forward, given that ACOEM members perform “thousands” of physical examinations for commercial driver certification, according to the group.

“Unlike many other health care professionals, occupational medicine specialists understand the importance of evaluating not just the individual’s current medical condition, but also the job tasks an individual is required to perform and how that condition may impact safe performance of those tasks.”

ACOEM points out that practical concerns associated with deaf and hard-of-hearing commercial drivers “are readily apparent,” citing detection of external warnings such as emergency vehicles, communications with dispatchers and law enforcement, and vehicle malfunctions.

Pushing back on assumptions

Information submitted to the FMCSA on the issue by the Community Legal Aid Society Inc. (CLASI) takes issue with ACOEM’s claims and other alleged safety implications of repealing the rule. CLASI cited a study by Begam Marks & Traulsen (BMT), a personal injury law firm, that analyzed truck crash rates and related deaths between 2015 and 2017.

BMT found that the following were the 10 most common factors in a truck-related accident, in descending order:

  • Failure to yield rights of way.
  • Careless driving.
  • Improper lane usage.
  • Failure to obey traffic signs and signals.
  • Following improperly.
  • Overcorrecting.
  • Stopping in the roadway.
  • Erratic or reckless vehicle operation.
  • Improper lane change.
  • Making an improper turn.

The law firm noted that while its analysis does not include specific mention of the impact of hearing and its relation to truck-related accidents, “the factors noted above have little, if anything, to do with the ability to hear.”

In response to alleged safety risks cited by those opposing its petition, NAD asserted that deaf and hard-of-hearing truckers are not at a higher risk of crashes.

“In fact, the DOT’s own 2008 Executive Study found deaf and hard of hearing drivers to be safe drivers with no increased crash risk compared to other drivers,” the group told FreightWaves. “Even if these safety concerns were grounded in reality, and they are not, the Department should be examining and outlining how deaf and hard of hearing truckers should be accommodated rather than denying them opportunities simply on the basis of their hearing status.”

View from the instructor’s seat

Autumn Daniel, who holds a CDL and trains deaf and hard-of-hearing truck drivers at Amarillo College in Amarillo, Texas, told FreightWaves that she has trained roughly a dozen deaf or hard-of-hearing students in the past three years who went on to drive commercially — and all have flawless records.

“A deaf driver can operate a motor vehicle without an issue,” Daniel said. “They typically notice things quicker; they’re more apt to use their sight and feel vibrations that can be the cause of a problem. Hearing is not an end-all be-all when it comes to operating a truck. There’s nothing drastically different between a truck driver versus someone towing a race car trailer that isn’t required to have to have CDL.”

Daniel strongly recommended that FMCSA consider NAD’s petition and repeal the waiver requirement for the deaf and hard of hearing.

“Let this community show you what they can do. I am betting my career they will surprise you.”

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.