Owner Operators - The Grapevine

Three years from now, the need for many CDL holders to carry a medical card will be a thing of the past. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has issued a final rule merging the medical examiner's certification with the commercial driver's license. The result is that an interstate driver's medical qualification status will be instantly accessible via his or her driving record, meaning many drivers will no longer need to carry their medical cards with them in their truck or bus.

Between January 30, 2012 and January 30, 2014, all interstate drivers who hold a CDL must begin providing their medical certificates to their state driver licensing agencies, The licensing agencies, in turn, will be required to record the driver's medical certification status in the national CDL database, known as the Commercial Driver License Information System (CDLIS), which is accessible to road side enforcement personnel.

Also beginning January 30, 2012, for interstate CDL drivers, motor carriers will no longer be required to keep a copy of the driver's medical card in the driver's qualification file. However, to verify a driver's medical qualification status, employers will instead have to obtain a copy of the driver's motor vehicle record before allowing the driver to drive a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce.

This marks a dramatic shift from current rules, which give motor carriers 30 days from hire to obtain the motor vehicle record. The agency estimates that today it takes only about four days to obtain a driver's report.

To maintain a "paper trial," medical examiners and state licensing agencies will be required to keep a copy of each driver's medical card for three years. Employers will also have to continue maintaining medical cards for any drivers not subject to the rule, including non-CDL drivers.

The final rule only applies to interstate CDL holders and their motor carrier employers, but states are expected to adopt similar intrastate rules in order to continue receiving federal highway funds.

In justifying the new rule, the FMCSA cited recent inspection and audit data, indicating that "there remains a need to improve oversight of the medical certification process for commercial motor vehicle drivers." Among the more than 3.4 million roadside inspections conducted in 2007, for example, the FMCSA says there were 145,000 drivers failing to have a medical certificate in their possession, 42,000 drivers operating with an expired medical certificate, 4,000 drivers in possession of an improper medical certificate, and 6,000 violations for physically unqualified drivers.

At an average price of $6 per MVD, the FMCSA estimates that the new rule will cost employers $3 million annually, but will prevent 288 crashes and save the country $43 million each year.

Four New Driver Categories

The new rule distinguishes between four types of drivers, and each CDL driver will be expected to notify his or her state licensing agency of the type of driver he or she is or expects to be, as follows:

Non-excepted interstate-operates in interstate commerce, is qualified under Part 391, and is required to obtain a medical card.
Excepted interstate-operates in interstate commerce but is exempt from having to obtain a medical card under Part 391.
Non-excepted intrastate-operates only in intrastate commerce and is subject to state qualification rules.
Excepted intrastate -operates in intrastate commerce but is exempted from state qualification rules.

Anyone presenting himself as a "non-excepted interstate" driver will have to provide the state with a current medical card, and all future cards.

If a driver's medical card or variance expires, the state must:

  • Update the CDLIS record within 10 days to show "not certified'
  • Notify the CDL holder of the "not certified" status, and
  • Downgrade the driver's CDL within 60 days.

FAQ About the New CDL Rules

Q: Do drivers need new medical cards on January 30, 2012.
A: No. Existing medical cards will be accepted as long as they are current.

Q: Will drivers need to renew their medical cards more frequently once the rules are in effect?
A: No.

Q: Does the new rule require states to notify drivers before their medical cards expires?
A: No, it is still up to the driver to keep track of the expiration date, although states have the option to notify drivers. The CDLIS driving record will show the medical card's expiration date, so employers will be aware of the date as well. States must, however, notify drivers before downgrading their CDLs.

Q: Will drivers have to hand-deliver each new medical card to the state?
A: Not necessarily. States are free to allow fax, mail, or electronic submissions.

Q: Will states charge drivers a fee for processing medical cards?
A: They can. The rule does not prohibit states from charging drivers for this. It is of the opinion of this writer that because of the financial condition of each state that you can count on them charging a fee.

Q: If an employing carrier's policy is to review each driver-applicant's MVR before hire and to require them to undergo a new medical exam, will the carrier need to obtain two MVRs?
A: No. If the carrier obtains an MVR showing one medical card expiration date and then the driver receives a new medical card expiration date, the carrier would not have to obtain a second MVR showing the new date. The applicant will, however, have to give the new medical card to the state licensing agency. The employer would have to obtain a new MVR at least within 12 months, for the annual review.

Q: Does the new rule affect intrastate (in-state) drivers?
A: It could. To receive federal highway funds, states are required to have rules that are similar to the federal rules. Therefore, states are required to revise their medical certification rules for intrastate drivers to be compatible with the new rule. However, states are not required to post intrastate driver's medical certification status to the CDLIS driver record

Q: Will the rule require employers to wait longer before putting a driver behind the wheel?
A: Possibly. As under current rules, drivers cannot operate CMVs in interstate commerce until the employer has proof they are medically qualified. Under the new rule, that "proof" will be the MVR instead of the medical card (although for new/renewal licensees, employers can use a receipt from the state licensing agency for up to 15 days after the receipt was issued). Of course the simple solution to this, drivers should get their own MVD before they apply for a job.

Q: Is a CDLIS status of "not-certified" an out-of-service condition?
A: A "downgrade" means either the state takes away the driver's CDL privileges or allows the driver to change his or her self-certification to "excepted interstate," "non-excepted interstate," or "excepted intrastate."