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Advocacy Group Fighting Restrictions On CDLs For The Hearing-Impaired

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Advocacy Group Fighting Restrictions On CDLs For The Hearing-Impaired

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) has asked the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to rescind a hearing requirement for interstate commercial drivers.

A request for public comments on the rulemaking petition is scheduled to publish in the Dec. 16 Federal Register. According to the draft of the proposal provided by FMCSA, NAD asks "that FMCSA amend the requirement that interstate drivers be able to speak and the rule prohibiting the use of interpreters during the administration of the commercial driver's license (CDL) skills test."

NAD "believes the origins of the hearing requirement dates to a time of misguided stereotypes about the abilities and inabilities of deaf and hard of hearing individuals and the rules should now be changed," according to the text of the Federal Register notice.

NAD is specifically looking for FMCSA to rescind U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rule 49 CFR § 391.41(b)(11), which states that any prospective CDL holder "can read and speak the English language sufficiently to converse with the general public, to understand highway traffic signs and signals in the English language, to respond to official inquiries and to make entries on reports and records."

In addition, under 49 CFR § 391.41(e)(11), DOT rules state that a person is not considered to have a hearing impairment if he or she can "perceive a forced whispered voice in the better ear at not less than 5 feet with or without the use of a hearing aid or, if tested by use of an audiometric device, does not have an average hearing loss in the better ear greater than 40 decibels at 500 Hz, 1,000 Hz and 2,000 Hz with or without a hearing aid when the audiometric device is calibrated to American National Standard (formerly ASA Standard) Z24.5—1951."

Comments will be accepted for 60 days following formal publication of the Federal Register notice.

The current hearing standard was adopted in 1970 and revised in 1971 to allow for the wearing of a hearing aid.

Since May 2012, FMCSA has granted nearly 500 exemptions to drivers who did not meet the current regulation's requirement. The speech requirement has been on the books since 1936 when it was adopted by the Interstate Commerce Commission, the forerunner to the DOT.

Since 2011, interpreters have been prohibited from helping applicants take the CDL knowledge and skills test. However, the tests are offered in written or verbal form or in an automated format, including in a foreign language.

In the Federal Register notice, NAD says that despite the exemptions, it would like to see the statutory requirement removed from the regulations.

"NAD also contends that both the hearing requirement for physical qualification to operate a commercial vehicle and the speaking requirement are violations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973," it says.

In 2017, FMCSA issued guidance that allowed leeway when it came to understanding what the terms "speak" and "verbal" meant in regard to the regulation. "If the actual skills tests are administered without the aid of an interpreter, the state is in compliance with 49 CFR 383.133(c)(5). Additionally, as noted above, there are no prohibitions against the use of an interpreter prior to the skills test generally or in between the three segments of the test. Use of a skills test examiner who is capable of communicating via American Sign Language is also an option," FMCSA said.

Following publication of that guidance, though, several carriers and CDL training providers expressed concerns with FMCSA when it came to behind-the-wheel training of a deaf or hearing-impaired individual. The inability to effectively communicate was cited as a concern, as was over-the-road safety, particularly as it relates to a driver's eyes straying from the road as they try to communicate with an instructor and the ability to hear audible alerts, warnings, emergency vehicles and sounds in and around busy loading docks and terminals.

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