New vision rules eyed

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After nearly a decade of study, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration plans later this year to propose a slight tightening of the vision requirements for truck drivers. A notice of proposed rulemaking will seek to alter the requirements for peripheral vision, but FMCSA plans to leave the bulk of the requirements unchanged, the agency revealed last month in a “Tech Brief” – a technical publication issued by its Office of Research and Technology.
The Tech Brief summarizes a final report issued in October 1998 by a panel of four medical experts convened by FMCSA’s predecessor agency to study the eyesight rules. FMCSA said its planned proposal would “amend the visual field requirements as recommended by the medical panel.”

Under the planned changes, drivers would need horizontal peripheral vision of at least 120 degrees in each eye, compared with 70 degrees under the current rules. In addition, the plan would introduce a new up-and-down peripheral vision requirement of at least 20 degrees above and below the horizontal axis in each eye.

The requirements that will remain the same include distant vision clarity of at least 20/40 in each eye with or without corrective lenses; distant binocular acuity of at least 20/40 in both eyes; and the ability to recognize the standard red, green and amber colors in traffic lights and other signals.

The quest for new vision requirements started in 1992, when Congress ordered a three-year program to grant waivers to drivers who did not meet all the standards but were considered safe drivers anyway. The goal was to gather data for possible changes in the vision requirements.

The vision waiver program has had its ups and downs. In a suit brought by safety groups and supported by the American Trucking Associations, a federal court tossed out that program as illegal in 1994. The Office of Motor Carriers – FMCSA’s predecessor – restructured the program, but it died again after another court defeat.

In 1998, Congress granted the OMC expanded powers to create waiver and exemption programs, and the agency began granting renewable two-year exemptions to some 1,500 drivers who had applied earlier for vision exemptions but had been left hanging by the court decisions.

In August 1999, however, OMC suffered another setback when the U.S. Supreme Court somewhat weakened the value of its vision waivers in several decisions related to the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. In one case, the court declared, in effect, that the driver’s disability did not warrant protection under ADA and that the company could ban him from driving even though he had a vision waiver from the government.