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How DOT Truck Driver Physicals Work - And How Attorneys Use These Tests As Evidence In Lawsuits

When a commercial truck is involved in an accident that injures another person, one piece of evidence that needs to be considered is the truck driver's physical exam record. There are laws in place at the federal level that regulate how often a driver undergoes a medical exam. These exams make sure the driver is at the proper fitness level to safely carry out their job and not put themselves or others at risk by getting behind the wheel of a semi-truck only to have a medical emergency that results in an accident.

Questions Answered on This Page

  • Why do truck drivers have to have physical examinations done on a routine basis?
  • How does this medical exam keep the roads safe for truckers and other drivers?
  • What happens if there's an accident and the driver was not fit to drive?
  • What physical or medical conditions impact a truck drivers ability to drive?

What Does The Law Say About Truck Driver Physicals?

Federal regulations require drivers to be in good health and to have their wellbeing inspected every 24 months. Further, 49 U.S.C. § 31149 is a federal law that establishes a council, of sorts, made up of medical professionals whose job it is to determine what constitutes a healthy trucker vs. an unhealthy one, and create guidelines to serve the basis of regulations designed to keep unhealthy truckers off the road. The important takeaway here is that doctors rather than politicians ultimately determine which conditions are serious enough to keep a driver off the road and which conditions are not likely to interfere with a trucker's ability to safely operate their vehicle.

The whole body of rules and regulations pertaining to truck driver medical exams is quite vast, but the gist of it is:

  • Truck drivers are not allowed to operate a commercial vehicle unless they are generally healthy.
  • Truckers are required to have a new physical exam conducted every 24 months.
  • There are a host of specific illnesses and ailments that truckers can't possess if they want to drive, including:
    • Certain variations of diabetes
    • Certain respiratory illnesses
    • Severe obesity
    • Alcoholism
    • Various heart conditions
    • Significant hearing or vision problems
  • Even if a trucker was issued a clean bill of health at their last physical and their next required physical is many months away, federal law requires truckers to voluntarily take themselves out of service if they develop a serious condition that they did not have as of their last physical.

In the event of an accident, if it's discovered the driver failed to divulge relevant medical information during their physical exam, the FMCSA states that:

FMCSA relies on the medical examiner's clinical judgment to decide whether additional information should be obtained from the driver's treating physician. Deliberate omission or falsification of information may invalidate the examination and any certificate issued based on it. A civil penalty may also be levied against the driver either for making a false statement of for concealing a disqualifying condition.

Notwithstanding the impact that obvious conditions such as blindness or the inability to hear have on a trucker's performance, the main issue that regulators are trying to protect the public from is incapacitated truck drivers. Whether a truck driver has a heart attack, a seizure, slips into a diabetic coma, or falls asleep at the wheel caused by a sleep apnea-induced lack of sleep the night before, the one hazard that all of these conditions present is that the driver loses the ability to control his vehicle, and usually it happens rather abruptly. Since this happens with surprising regularity and perhaps hundreds of accidents each year are caused by truckers who become incapacitated behind the wheel, clearly such intervention by the government represents a necessary interference.

Who Conducts Truck Driver Physicals?

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, physical examination for truck drivers have to be conducted by a licensed "medical examiner." The term medical examiner used in the common vernacular refers to someone who examines corpses, but in the language of the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Act, this term of art simply means "medical professional," for lack of a better explanation. The types of "medical examiners" that are legally allowed to conduct a physical are:

  • Doctors of Medicine
  • Doctors of Osteopathy
  • Physician Assistants
  • Advanced Practice Nurses
  • Doctors of Chiropractic

As you would imagine, federal law also specifies how the physical exam is to be performed. The foundation of the exam is Form MCSA-5875; the standardized medical examination form to be used by doctors when evaluating a trucker's fitness.

Here is an example of the Form MCSA-5875:

Medical exam form used for truck drivers.
Click on the image to see the full-sized version of the form.

How does a truck driver's physical exam play into a commercial truck accident lawsuit?

Regarding this importance of the DOT physical examination, the FMCSA says:

The FMCSA physical examination is required to help ensure that a person is medically qualified to safely operate a CMV. In the interest of public safety, CMV drivers are held to higher physical, mental and emotional standards than passenger car drivers.

In addition to the federal government's outlook, common law legal principals hold that truckers owe a duty to the general public to refrain from operating a commercial vehicle if they are not healthy enough to do so. When an accident is caused (or is believed to have been caused) by a truck driver who suffered from a medical condition, the trucking industry would have you believe that it is just a freak occurrence that couldn't have been predicted. Sometimes that's true, but the vast majority of times a truck driver's physical exams will show worse and worse results over a period of time if they are developing serious health problems, and it's the responsibility of their trucker and their employer to recognize the trend.

Think of it like this. Imagine that police officers can only carry a firearm if they can shoot at 85% accuracy, as tested every two years. Officer Jones starts working for the Dallas police and he shoots at a solid 95%. Two years later he gets tested again, and he is still at 95%. Two more years go by and suddenly his shooting drops to 92%. Then 90%. Then 87%. Yes, he's still passing, but if his supervisors are doing their jobs correctly, they should recognize that he is getting worse BEFORE he backslides so much that he has to be taken out of service. The same thing applies to truck drivers. If a trucker's employer can tell that, even though a truck driver is still meeting the minimum requirements, his health is getting worse and worse, it is not fair or reasonable for the trucking company to suggest that they could not have predicted that an accident caused by, say, a heart attack behind the wheel, was unforeseeable. Back to the Officer Jones analogy, if his employers were truly concerned about public safety, they would not wait until he fails to try and fix his shooting problem. No, they should recognize that he is getting worse and fix the problem long before he sinks below the minimum standards. The same exact logic applies to unhealthy truck drivers.

So, if an accident was caused by a truck driver who went into shock due to complications from being a type 2 diabetic, it would be important to see what the medical professional had to say on their last few physical exams and how seriously his employer took the warning signs. Physical exams are just one piece of evidence that can be gathered in the process of working through a truck accident case.

Why an Experienced Attorney is Helpful in a Truck Accident Case

Grossman Law Offices has over 25 years of experience handling truck accident cases. We're confident that we can help you or your loved one if they're been injured as a result of a commercial truck accident. Don't think you have to figure this out on your own. We have experienced attorneys ready to answer whatever questions you may have 24/7. Give us a call at (855) 326-0000.

Here are some other articles about the various types of evidence used in truck accident cases: