Like airline pilots, drivers of commercial motor vehicles are subject to fairly rigorous physical health requirements. However, if you spend half an hour at any truck stop you are likely to find drivers who are obviously not physically fit. The lifestyle of the over-the-road trucker is not a healthy one. It is inherently sedentary. Obesity is frequently a problem. Truckers also tend to be heavy cigarette smokers and beer drinking is not unknown in the profession.
In order to legally operate a CMV, a driver must pass a physical examination and be issued a “Medical Examiner’s Certificate” by an examiner qualified under the regulations. The failure to possess a current Certificate may indicate some physical problem that should have prevented the driver from operating a CMV. The paperwork describing the exam, which is frequently made part of the DQ file, may give insight into the driver’s physical health that is not otherwise readily obtainable.
In any case where an unexplained act on the part of the driver is suspected, the medical examiner’s file should be sought and scrutinized. The examination may itself reveal health problems that arguably should have prevented the driver from receiving a certificate. Physicians who routinely evaluate drivers as part of a contract with a motor carrier may have an incentive to issue medical certificates even though a driver barely meets the required physical qualifications, or does not meet them at all.
Proof of Physical Qualifications
Before the FMCSRs delve into the specific necessary physical qualifications for CMV drivers, they first impose a mundane record-keeping requirement that could still trip up even the healthiest and most physically fit driver. A CMV driver must carry on his or her person the original or a copy of their current medical examiner’s certificate proving their physical qualifications.
There are two exceptions to this requirement. The first is rooted in principles of international comity. Effective December 29, 2011, Mexican CMV drivers need not possess a Certificate if they have a valid Licencia Federal de Conductor issued by the United Mexican States, which serves as proof of their medical fitness to drive a CMV. Similarly, effective March 30, 1999, a valid CDL issued by a Canadian province or territory will serve as proof of a Canadian driver’s medical fitness under a Reciprocity Agreement between Canada and the United States. There are two minor caveats, however. First, a CDL issued by either country and the medical status of the driver, including any waiver or exemption, must be capable of electronic verification. Second, if a driver from either country has a medical authorization that deviates from the mutually accepted compatible medical standards of their respective country, that driver will not qualify to drive a CMV in the United States. The regulation provides an example to illustrate the latter caveat: “Canadian drivers who do not meet the medical fitness provisions of the Canadian National Safety Code for Motor Carriers, but are issued a waiver by one of the Canadian Provinces or Territories, are not qualified to drive a CMV in the United States.” In the true spirit of reciprocity, however, this caveat is a two-way street: US drivers with a medical variance from the FMCSA would not be qualified to drive a CMV in Canada, either.
The second exception to the requirement that a CMV driver keep the original or a copy of their certificate on their person is a recent creation that signifies the transition of the FMCSR into the digital age. As of January 30, 2014, a driver who has submitted a current medical examiner’s certificate to the state that issued his CDL no longer needs to carry the Certificate on their person. The relief from this requirement is owed to the Commercial Driver’s License Information System (CDLIS).
Specific Physical Qualifications (and Disqualifications)
CMV driver-candidates must meet thirteen enumerated physical qualifications. In reading the regulation, it becomes apparent that most of the thirteen do not actually set forth what physically qualifies someone to operate a CMV, but instead actually detail what physically disqualifies someone from doing so. For this reason, FMCSRs’ driver physical qualifications requirements are perhaps best understood when broken down into two categories: (1) the physical capabilities that drivers must have, and (2) the physical conditions, disabilities, medical history, and diagnoses that drivers may not have. By this framework it becomes clear that CMV driver candidates are judged far more by their lack of fitness than by any particular skill or talent for driving.
As to the first category, a CMV driver must have the following two physical capabilities:
- Visual acuity that meets or surpasses specifically-described levels, measured with and without the use of corrective lenses, and including color recognition abilities sufficient to identify the colors of traffic signals and devices
- Hearing that meets or surpasses specifically-described levels.
In other words, the FMCSRs require something both reasonable and obvious: a driver must be able to see and hear adequately to qualify to operate a CMV. While these two requirements eliminate few individuals, the remaining eleven criteria weed out many more. Almost all of them involve disabilities or diseases established by either the driver candidate’s medical history or a current clinical diagnosis.A driver candidate will be physically disqualified from operating a commercial motor vehicle if they have:
- Lost an arm, hand, leg, or foot, unless they meet specific alternative physical qualification standards for persons with limb loss or impairment
- Has any impairment of a hand or finger which interferes with prehension or power grasping, or other significant limb defect, limitation, or impairment that interferes with the ability to perform normal tasks associated with operating a CMV, unless, again, specific alternative physical qualification standards are met
- Diabetes mellitus currently requiring insulin for control
- Cardiovascular disease that is known to be accompanied by syncope, dyspnea, collapse, or congestive cardiac failure (including but not limited to conditions such as myocardial infarction, angina pectoris, coronary insufficiency, or thrombosis)
- Respiratory problems that are likely to interfere with the ability to control and drive a CMV safely
- High blood pressure likely to interfere with the ability to safely drive a CMV
- Rheumatic, arthritic, orthopedic, muscular, neuromuscular, or vascular disease which interferes with the ability to control and drive a CMV safely
- Epilepsy or any other condition that is likely to cause a loss of consciousness or inability to control a CMV
- Mental, nervous, organic or functional disease or psychiatric disorder likely to interfere with the ability to safely drive a CMV
- A current clinical diagnosis of alcoholism
- Current or recent usage of a Schedule I controlled substance, amphetamine, narcotic, or other addictive drug, unless prescribed by a licensed physician who is familiar with the driver’s medical history and assigned duties and has advised the driver that the substance or drug will not interfere with his or her ability to safely operate a CMV