The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is currently reviewing a petition from the National Association of the Deaf to relax certain requirements for deaf truck drivers.
NAD is arguing that the present requirements stating deaf truckers must pass a medical exam proving their ability to hear and prohibiting them from using interpreters during tests were implemented during a “time of misguided stereotypes about the abilities and inabilities of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.”
NAD has been pushing for updates to these requirements since 2017.
“NAD also contends that both the hearing requirement for physical qualification to operate a commercial vehicle and the speaking requirement are violations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973,” said FMCSA’s announcement inviting public comment on the petition. This comment period ended on February 14th.
As of now, drivers have to “perceive a forced whispered voice in the better ear at no less than 5 feet, with or without the use of a hearing aid,” to pass hearing exams.
Additionally, to pass an audiometric device test, a driver must not have an average loss of hearing in his or her better ear, with or without a hearing aid, of any greater than 40 decibels at 500 Hertz, 1,000 Hertz, and 2,000 Hertz.
Any deaf drivers who cannot successfully pass these hearing tests are currently able to seek an exemption from the FMCSA, and at least 450 deaf drivers who have good driving records have been given 5-year exemptions.
Regardless, many prominent groups in the trucking industry have filed comments opposing any relaxation of present regulations. These groups include: American Trucking Associations, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, Commercial Vehicle Training Association, American Bus Association, and American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.
“While ATA believes the National Association of Deaf petition has merit, there are several concerns that FMCSA must address before any consideration to eliminate the hearing requirement for commercial motor vehicle operators,” ATA said in its comments. “These concerns involve a commercial driver license training, regulatory compliance, workplace safety, advisory board opposition, the lack of data currently available to assess crash risk, and employers’ ability to make an individual assessment of driver applicants.”
ATA also explained that proof of safety improvements in this circumstance is most important. “Before FMCSA revises any safety standard, both the petitioner and FMCA must provide the public with data-driven evidence that reflects real-world situations and adequately ensures safe CMV operations on our nation’s roadways.”
According to the FMCSA Federal Register Post, the proposal must undergo an environmental analysis in accordance with the FAA Order titled: “Environmental Impacts: Policies and Procedures” before any final regulatory changes.
OOIDA did note that FMCSA’s 2017 analysis of 218 CDL holders who had hearing exemptions showed that those drivers did in fact have a lower crash rate than the national average, as well as fewer out-of-service violations. Still, OOIDA remains in opposition to any regulation updates for deaf truck drivers.
“Driving a commercial [motor vehicle] requires constant attention,” said Education for Apex CDL Institute owner, Jeffrey Steinberg. “It requires the ability to always perceive changing circumstances around you. It requires the ability to not only see what is going on, but to also hear what is going on. Screeching tires, horns and train bells, emergency vehicle sirens.”
He also explained that hearing ability can be imperative in the case of mechanical issues on trucks. “Drivers need to be able to detect mechanical problems to be able to act before a serious problem occurs. Blown and failed tires, air leaks, wheel bearing failures, screeching brakes, engine knocks, and pre-ignition, just to name a few.”
Many deaf truck drivers don’t see these safety concerns as valid, though.
“I’m a deaf trucker of 29 years with no accident of any sort of record,” said driver David Helgerson. “Technology today has vastly improved [from where] it was years and years ago. This barrier needs to be removed.”
CTVA stands firm. “The government’s extensive 1997 study found a ‘consensus’ among subject matter experts ‘that there are many tasks for which truck drivers are required to use their hearing.’ CVTA strongly opposes NAD’s request to remove the hearing and speech requirements for the operation of commercial motor vehicles.”
Whether or not FMCSA will consider the technology improvements that have simplified so many manual trucking tasks since then in regards to how truck drivers perform their duties has yet to be determined.