Driving with Disabilities

by Fran Bernard, on Jul 12, 2023 9:47:56 AM


The most important safety feature of a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) is the driver. Every time you get behind the wheel, you are responsible for your own safety, as well as the safety of all the people who share the road with you. The physical qualification examination you take for your Medical Examiner’s Certificate confirms that you are healthy enough to safely perform the job of a CMV driver.

Without truck drivers, the nation would grind to a standstill and life as we know it would be impossible. But can someone with physical disabilities become a truck driver?  

It is possible to drive a truck with a disability. Many of the most experienced and relied-upon truck drivers in the US have some type of disability. Most types of physical disabilities do not prevent a person from being able to drive a truck professionally. 

Sometimes accommodations need to be made for disabled truck drivers, for example, changes to the structure of the cab, or technological aids for loading and unloading. But in 2020, technology has made these types of accommodations easier to make than ever before. Technology is transforming trucks and trucking in numerous amazing ways, so a physical disability is has become less of a disadvantage for a truck driver.

There are many practical considerations when it comes to driving a truck with a physical disability. But, the modern technology is producing ingenious ways of solving the problems that disabled drivers face. 

The truck-driving industry is using technology to enable disabled drivers to work effectively and to enjoy long, lucrative careers in the industry. Here are some of the most useful modifications that are enabling disabled truck drivers to do their job:

  • Wheelchair lifts and ramps
  • Cranes for loading and unloading
  • Hand controls
  • Adaptive electronic controls
  • Pedal and steering wheel extensions
  • Left foot accelerators.
  • Reduced effort braking systems

All truck drivers must obtain a certification from a licensed medical professional to qualify for a Commercial Driver’s License. There are several disabilities that disqualify a person from driving a truck.

The large majority of physical disabilities disqualify a person only if the disability interferes with their ability to drive. If a person can demonstrate that their disability does not interfere with their driving during a Skill Performance Evaluation, they will qualify to drive.

The conditions that disqualify a person outright are:

  • Diabetes: If the person needs to inject their insulin, people who take their insulin orally may qualify.

  • Cardiovascular disease: If it is of the type that may be accompanied by congestive cardiac failure, syncope, dyspnea, or collapse.

  • Certain respiratory diseases: If they are likely to interfere with the ability to safely operate a commercial motor vehicle.

  • Hypertension of Stage 3 severity.

  • Blindness in one eye.

The truck driver must be medically qualified to not only drive the vehicle safely, but also to do pre and post trip safety inspections, secure the load and make sure it has not shifted.

By regulation, Specific Medically Disqualifying Conditions Found Under 49 CFR 391.41 are Hearing Loss, Vision Loss, Epilepsy, and Insulin Use.

Drivers who require a Diabetes or Vision exemption to safely drive a CMV in addition to those pre-printed on the certification form are disqualified until they receive such an exemption. Driver Physical Qualification | FMCSA (dot.gov)

Intrastate drivers are subject to the physical qualification regulations of their States. All 50 States have adapted their regulations based on some of the Federal requirements. Many states grant waivers for certain medical conditions.

49 CFR Section 390.3(d) gives employers the right to adopt stricter medical standards. Motor Carriers (companies) cannot set less restrictive standards. In addition, the employer can require the driver to perform ancillary duties as a condition of employment.

A DOT physical is a medical exam mandated by the Department of Transportation that must take place in order for you to be eligible for a CDL. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) sets the regulations for what these exams consist of. The test assesses your general health, along with your mental and emotional fitness since this could be impacted by the demands of professional commercial driving. 

The exam must be conducted by a medical professional on the FMCSA National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners (only these individuals can issue a valid medical certification). During the exam, they will test your blood pressure, vision, hearing, and do a urinalysis for glucose levels and a drug screening. They will also go over your complete medical history with you. Can You Get A CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) With A Disability? - Dr. Handicap (drhandicap.com)

It is possible for you to fail a DOT physical if the medical examiner believes your medical condition (or your use of a medication or substance) would compromise your ability to drive safely. These conditions can include anything that could lead to a loss of consciousness, hearing or vision issues, a compromised immune system, or physical limitations that make driving difficult.

Here are a few more examples of conditions that might disqualify you for a CDL:

  • Some heart conditions: Such as heart attack, coronary insufficiency, risk of blood clots, etc.

  • Epilepsy or other seizures: Anything that can cause loss of consciousness (though it is possible for drivers to show their seizures are under control and potentially receive an FMCSA seizure exemption so that they can get their CDL).

  • Inner ear disease or disorders that cause vertigo or balance issues: Drivers can possibly seek re-certification if they have gone a particular amount of time with no symptoms.

  • Use of marijuana (for medical or recreational purposes): This can also include CBD oil or hemp, as well as any illegal drugs such as heroin, LSD, MDMA, mushrooms, etc.

Some medical examiners will allow applicants to pass the DOT physical if they have diabetes but are on a stable insulin regimen and have properly controlled their symptoms. Individuals will be expected to provide logs of their glucose levels that demonstrate their symptoms are being successfully managed over a specified length of time. 

Drivers with high blood pressure can also receive special dispensation if their blood pressure is below Stage 3 (higher than 180 systolic and/or higher than 120 diastolic pressure). Anything above that is considered a hypertensive diagnosis and disqualifies them from a CDL.

It is possible to get exemptions for some medical conditions. Under 49 United States Code 31315 and 31136(e), the FMCSA may grant an exemption from the FMCSRs if the agency determines it is in the public interest and would likely achieve a level of safety equivalent to, or greater than, the level that would be achieved by complying with the safety regulation. Section 381.300 through 381.330 of the FMCSRs describes procedures applicants must follow to apply for exemptions and can be viewed at 49 CFR 381.330. FMCSA currently has exemption programs for vision and insulin-treated diabetes mellitus and offers a certificate program for drivers with limb impairments. FMCSA also has a special certification program for drivers with missing and/or impaired limbs (49 CFR 391.41(b)(1). If you are granted an FMSCA exemption you must comply with the terms and conditions of the exemption.

Getting a waiver is a temporary regulatory relief from one or more of the FMCSRs given to a person subject to the regulations, or a person who intends to engage in an activity that would be subject to the regulations. A waiver provides the person with relief from the regulation for up to three months. 49 CFR 391.64 provides waivers to CMV drivers who were in the initial vision and insulin programs in the early 1990's.

An exemption is a temporary regulatory relief from one of more of the FMCSRs given to a person or class of persons subject to the regulations, or who intend to engage in an activity that would make them subject to the regulation. An exemption provides the person or class of persons with relief from the regulations for up to two years but may be renewed.

The Medical Review Board (MRB) is a nationally recognized standing board of licensed physicians established by FMCSA to provide expert advice to the Secretary of Transportation on matters related to physical qualifications of drivers, medical standards and guidelines, materials for training medical examiners, functional tests for drivers with multiple disabilities and identifying risks of sudden incapacitation. Can Someone With Physical Disabilities Become A Truck Driver? (drhandicap.com)

Disability or not, if you are not able to pass a DOT physical, you can not get your CDL. There are ways for you to seek re-certification, which many people do when their health is better managed. If you have a disability, and you have passed the DOT physical, training, and testing, you can receive your CDL.

If you have been unsure on how to get a CDL with a disability, start with researching the specific requirements in your state and talk to your doctor about whether they think you would be eligible to apply for a CDL.  

When you are driving, beware of your surroundings, and keep on truckin’ safely!

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Topics:Life on the RoadHealth and Wellness

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