OOIDA asks FMCSA to not repeal hearing requirement

February 17, 2020

Mark Schremmer


In response to the National Association of the Deaf’s petition to rescind the requirement for interstate commercial motor vehicle drivers to be able to hear, OOIDA said there is insufficient data showing that the change would improve safety.

OOIDA submitted formal comments to FMCSA regarding the petition on Friday, Feb. 14.

“OOIDA recommends that FMCSA maintain the current exemption program until sufficient safety data can be gathered and analyzed,” the Association wrote in comments signed by President and CEO Todd Spencer.

The National Association of the Deaf’s petition asked FMCSA to change its safety regulations so that deaf and hard of hearing individuals would be allowed to drive in interstate commerce. The FMCSA currently grants individual exemptions, but the group said the rule should be changed to eliminate the “regulatory barrier” for these individuals. In addition, the National Association of the Deaf contends that FMCSA’s hearing and speaking requirements are violations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. FMCSA published a request for public comments on Dec. 16.

The history

The current hearing standard was adopted in 1970 and revised in 1971 to allow drivers who were wearing a hearing aid. In 2012, NAD requested an exemption on behalf of 45 deaf drivers. FMCSA granted exemptions to 40 of the 45 applicants. Since that time, FMCSA has granted more than 450 exemptions to individuals who do not meet the hearing standard.

The requirement for interstate commercial motor vehicle drivers to be able to read and speak English sufficiently to converse with the general public, understand highway traffic signs, respond to official inquires, and make entries on reports and records was first adopted in 1936 by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Other than the elimination of some exceptions in 1939, the requirements have remained largely unchanged.

In 2011, FMCSA published a final rule amending the CDL knowledge and skills testing standards, prohibiting the use of interpreters during the administration of the CDL knowledge and skills test. As part of the rule, neither the applicant nor the examiner may communicate in a language other than English during the skills test. Because some hearing-impaired drivers can’t speak English, it was asserted that they may not meet the requirements of the federal regulations.

In 2017, FMCSA published a notice explaining that the restriction does not mean a skills test cannot be accomplished with a deaf or hard-of-hearing individual. During the public comment period, motor carriers raised concerns about work-place safety with deaf or hard-of-hearing drivers. The concerns included identifying effective alternatives to audible alerts and warnings for hazardous conditions, such as trucks backing around loading docks and driven around terminals.

OOIDA’s take

In its petition to FMCSA, the National Association of the Deaf cited a purported driver shortage as being a reason to rescind the hearing requirement.

OOIDA has long contended that there is not a driver shortage and noted that the American Trucking Associations reported that large carriers reduced their number of drivers in the third quarter of 2019 as part of an effort to “right-size” their fleets.

“The National Association of the Deaf’s claim there is an ‘extreme shortage of qualified CDL drivers’ is a misleading justification for granting the petition,” OOIDA wrote. “Far too many stakeholders and lawmakers have accepted the driver shortage myth, which illustrates a troubling lack of understanding about the trucking industry.”

OOIDA also asked the FMCSA to maintain its English requirements.

“Experience has shown that a commercial motor vehicle driver’s ability to communicate effectively in English is critical from a safety perspective,” OOIDA wrote.

Until there is more data to indicate that making a change would improve safety, OOIDA said the agency should maintain the status quo.

“There is insufficient data showing that repealing the hearing requirement would improve safety,” the Association wrote. “OOIDA recommends FMCSA deny the National Association of the Deaf petition for rulemaking and continue granting individual exemptions under the current waiver system.”

Mark Schremmer

Mark Schremmer, senior editor, joined Land Line in 2015. An award-winning journalist and former assistant news editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal, he brings fresh ideas, solid reporting skills, and more than two decades of journalism experience to our staff.