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OUR OPINION: Tighten rules on truckers' health

If unfit airline pilots routinely were blacking out at the controls, the FAA would do something about it. And if that didn't happen, Congress would step in.

If unfit airline pilots routinely were blacking out at the controls, the FAA would do something about it. And if that didn't happen, Congress would step in.

Luckily, airline pilots aren't blacking out in this way. But too many truck drivers are: "Tractor-trailer and bus drivers in the United States have suffered seizures, heart attacks or unconscious spells behind the wheel that led to deadly crashes on highways," The Associated Press reported.

Furthermore, "hundreds of thousands of drivers carry commercial licenses even though they also qualify for full federal disability payments, according to a new U.S. safety study obtained by The AP."

And the problem persists "despite years of government warnings and hundreds of deaths and injuries," according to the story.

That's unacceptable. Either the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration must start doing its job -- or else, as in the pilots' example, Congress must force the issue.

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Almost every item in every store in America got transported at some point by truck. Trucks keep the economy humming. And as taxpayers must understand, that means a federal crackdown on unfit commercial drivers is sure to drive up trucking companies' costs. Retail prices then would move in the same direction.

It's worth it. While every American has an interest in low prices, every American has a deeper interest in highway safety. If tougher enforcement by the federal government would markedly lower the annual death-and-injury toll, then that's a task the government should undertake.

Would enforcement make a real difference? The National Transportation Safety Board, one of the federal government's most respected agencies, thinks it would. Since 2003, the board "has put medical oversight of commercial truck and bus drivers on its 'most wanted' list, calling the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's overall response 'unacceptable,'?" The AP reported.

That puts the medical oversight on a par with such effective and common-sense reforms as graduated drivers licenses for teenagers.

"The NTSB issued eight safety recommendations to crack down on unfit commercial drivers who seek to evade federal rules that require special physicals at least every two years," The AP continued.

"None of the recommendations have been implemented, although the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has begun taking steps to address three of them in part."

The recommendations include such things as preventing the wrongful issuance of medical certification, helping police officers quickly identify phony or invalid certificates during traffic stops and preventing uncertified drivers from getting back behind the wheel.

The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is scheduled to begin oversight hearings this week. The committee, which is chaired by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., should insist that regulators address all eight of the NTSB recommendations (as opposed to "three of them, in part").

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Highway safety is a legitimate role of the federal government. And there's nothing "nanny state" about motorists' expectation that the rules keep unfit drivers from operating 40-ton trucks.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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