WASHINGTON — States will have 20 months to set up computer systems tracking truck and bus drivers’ medical fitness before the federal government starts withholding highway funds.
States that miss the initial Jan. 30 deadline won’t face a 5 percent loss of highway funds unless they fail to comply by Sept. 30, 2013, Candice Burns, a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. The penalty can rise to 10 percent in subsequent years, she said.
Maine was not among the 10 states that had their computer systems ready or nearly ready to handle the new rules as of Dec. 31, according to data compiled by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. Others are hurrying to make the deadline, said Kevin Lewis, director of driver programs for the Arlington, Va.-based group.
“It’s not easy and all the states are in the same economic situation,” Lewis said. “It’s a matter of doing 10 pounds of work with 5 pounds’ worth of money.”
Congress gave the Transportation Department a mandate in 2005 to create a computerized national database for drivers’ medical certificates to replace paper copies to help reduce paperwork and fraud.
The seven states that had fully tested their new licensing systems, as of Dec. 31, were Alaska, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, according to the motor-vehicle administrators group. Georgia, Minnesota and North Carolina were close behind, according to the association.
“It’s great news,” John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said of the 2013 compliance date. “Whenever a state gets hit with a sanction and loses the money it desperately needs to improve the safety of highways and bridges, it’s a setback.”
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration can revoke a state’s authority to issue interstate licenses if it fails to live up to the requirements for commercial drivers’ licenses, said Boyd Stephenson, manager of safety and security operations at the American Trucking Associations in Arlington, Va.
The trucking industry supports the agency’s goals and hopes the delays at the state level don’t result in a “disruption in the flow of commerce,” Stephenson said. Companies worry they’ll be held accountable for drivers’ mistakes as states implement temporary systems before they can fully implement the final electronic database, he said.
“It would be a great shame if a driver was placed out of service when actually medically able to drive but through some glitch in this upgrade process,” Stephenson said.
The FMCSA estimated when proposing the regulation in December 2008 that there had been 145,219 medical-certificate violations in 3.4 million roadside inspections during the previous year. About 3,000 truck crashes a year are caused by drivers having a heart attack or related to another “physical impairment,” the agency said.
There were 286,000 large-truck crashes in the U.S. in 2009, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data used in an FMCSA report last year.
The idea was to create all-electronic records for law-enforcement officials to check during inspections, rather than relying on paper certificates that have been subject to fraud, said Henry Jasny, vice president and general counsel of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-based watchdog group.
“Having it all electronic will mean there’s immediate access to information by police,” Jasny said. “It will cut down on the number of crashes.”
The Transportation Department may hesitate to withhold money from states that are moving to comply with the law, said Steve Keppler, the executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance in Greenbelt, Md.
“The last thing anyone wants to do is sanction a state, particularly when there’s legitimate reason not to do so,” said Keppler, who represents transportation officials. “There are a lot of requirements that are being imposed on the licensing agencies.”
Missouri is among states that may miss the deadline. Legislation that would have allowed it to comply failed last year, said Chuck Gohring, a motor carrier enforcement administrator for the state’s transportation department.
“Missouri wants to do it,” Gohring said. “We’re trying to do it. It’s just the legislation has got to happen right.”