WASHINGTON (AP) -- House lawmakers scolded federal regulators Thursday for failing to implement recommendations made in 2001 that were designed to keep medically unfit commercial truck and bus drivers off the nation's highways.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., told Rose McMurray, the chief safety officer for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, that deaths and injuries caused by medically unfit drivers are "on your conscience" because the agency has taken so long to act.
"I think if your agency had a safety mission and a safety mind-set it wouldn't have taken you eight years," Oberstar told McMurray at a hearing, demanding that she "carry back to your agency" his message to "get people moving."
He said the agency's efforts to fulfill the eight recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board "have been begrudging and painstakingly slow. ... The progress has been just about negligible."
McMurray said the agency has proposed one rule and is close to proposing another to address two of the recommendations -- to merge the licensing and medical certification of commercial drivers, and to create a national registry of examiners approved to issue medical certificates -- and has made progress on two other recommendations. However, she said it will be about three years before progress is evident on the remaining four recommendations.
"We have to make sure we do this right and we have to ensure there are not unintended consequences," McMurray said.
The NTSB made the recommendations in response to a 1999 motorcoach accident in New Orleans that killed 22, and put them on the agency's "most wanted" list in 2003.
In the New Orleans motorcoach accident, the NTSB said the bus driver, Frank Bedell, 46, suffered life-threatening kidney and heart conditions but held a valid license and medical certificate. A passenger recounted seeing the driver slumped in his seat moments before the crash.
Tractor-trailer and bus drivers have suffered seizures, heart attacks or unconscious spells while behind the wheel. Such illnesses have been a critical factor in thousands of serious truck accidents.
The NTSB recommended that examiners who certify drivers as medically fit be qualified and know what to look for, and that a system be set up to track medical certificate applications and prevent drivers from doctor shopping.
A study by the House committee found that it's so easy to fabricate the medical certificates required to operate commercial trucks and buses that there's almost no incentive for drivers to obtain a legitimate document.
There are so few controls over how drivers obtain medical certificates that it's "relatively easy for a motivated commercial driver to circumvent the physical examination requirement," the study found. Nor is there any database or central repository which would allow state inspectors to verify the legitimacy of a medical certificate.
"Because so few attempts are made to authenticate a certificate, there is little risk that a driver will be caught if he or she forges or adulterates a certificate," the study said.
The study was based on a sample of 614 medical certificates obtained from truck drivers at roadside inspections in California, Illinois and Ohio. The committee's staff attempted to contact the examiners named on the medical certificates but could only verify 407 as valid.
One Ohio doctor contacted by the committee said forgery of medical certificates is so commonplace "no one gets alarmed by it anymore."
Hundreds of thousands of drivers carry commercial licenses even though they also qualify for full federal disability payments, according to a U.S. safety study disclosed by The Associated Press earlier this week.
The Government Accountability Office said in the study that 563,000 commercial drivers were determined by the Veterans Affairs Department, Labor Department or Social Security Administration to also be eligible for full disability benefits over health issues. It said disability doesn't necessarily mean a driver is unfit to operate a commercial vehicle, but its investigators found alarming examples that raised doubts about the safety of the nation's highways.