According to the Associated Press (AP), an advanced copy of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study set to be released later this week reveals that hundreds of thousands of U.S. commercial driver’s license holders also qualify for full federal disability payments--with many suffering from severe health problems.

The study said that 563,000 commercial drivers were determined by the Veterans Affairs Department, Labor Department or Social Security Administration to be eligible for full disability benefits due to health issues, AP reported.

While disability does not necessarily mean a driver is unfit to operate a vehicle, more than 1,000 drivers were identified that suffer from vision, hearing or seizure disorders, according to AP.

A review of 7.3 million commercial driver violations compiled by the Dept. of Transportation in 2006 showed truck drivers violating federal medical rules in all 50 states, with the most frequent sanctions occurring in Texas, Maryland, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Alabama, New Jersey, Minnesota and Ohio.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by Rep. James Oberstar, (D-MN), will conduct oversight hearings on the topic this Thursday, AP reported. The committee has asked GAO to further investigate unfit truck drivers and create a nationwide database for commercial truck driver drug-test results.

The report comes on the heels of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill for 2009, which contained an extensive report with a number of recommendations that it urged the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to swiftly enact.

“The Committee is committed to improving the safety of our Nation’s highways and is greatly concerned with the FMCSA’s actions, or inaction, related to safety recommendations and regulatory development,” the report said. “While the Committee acknowledges that some progress was made in reducing the number of large truck fatalities in 2006, the agency must continue to improve its safety efforts in order to foster an industry-wide commitment to safety.

“In 2001, NTSB (The National Transportation Surface Board) recommended that FMCSA take action to prevent medically unqualified drivers from operating commercial vehicles,” the report stated. “This recommendation was placed on the NTSB’s list of ‘Most Wanted’ recommendations—the recommendations NTSB feels will have the greatest impact on safety—in 2003. This recommendation resulted from accident investigations that revealed system flaws that resulted in medically unqualified drivers being issued CDLs. FMCSA recently issued a notice of proposed rulemaking related to this issue. However, this did not satisfy the concerns of the NTSB. As such, the recommendation remains classified as ‘open—unacceptable’ by the NTSB.

“The GAO also uncovered deficiencies in the FMCSA’s drug testing of commercial truck drivers,” the report continued. “GAO had investigators pose as commercial truck drivers, and visit several sites to obtain DOT-required drug tests. Of the 24 collection sites visited, 22 were not in full compliance with protocols covering sample collection. In addition, the GAO found that drivers who have tested positive for drugs with one company can often gain employment with another carrier without positive drug tests being identified. GAO recommended the creation of a national database of positive and refusal-to-test drug and alcohol test results, and that the FMCSA seek the authority to oversee drug collection sites.”

According to the Dept. of Transportation, 5,300 people died in 2006—the latest year for which figures are available—in crashes involving large commercial trucks or buses, with an additional 126,000 injured.

Phone calls seeking additional comments from FMCSA and the American Trucking Assns. (ATA) were not returned as of this posting.

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