Transportation Safety:

Medical Certification and Background Check Requirements for Pilots, Vessel Masters, and Commercial Drivers Vary

GAO-08-421R: Published: Feb 27, 2008. Publicly Released: Feb 27, 2008.

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Susan A. Fleming
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Federal laws and regulations require that safety-related transportation professionals undergo screening to ensure that they can safely perform their jobs. Medical certification and background checks of selected pilots, vessel masters, and commercial drivers are part of the requirements for licensing these workers. Certification or licensing also includes testing workers' knowledge and skills required for the jobs. These checks are critical because physically or mentally unfit transportation workers pose a danger to themselves and to the public. Because of concerns raised by recent investigations of the reliability of pilot medical certifications, Congress asked us to first describe the requirements for medical and background checks for selected transportation workers. Accordingly, we addressed the following questions for (1) medical certification and (2) background checks: What are the regulations governing pilots, vessel masters, and commercial drivers and what role do government entities have in completing the certifications and background checks? A second report, which will be issued mid-2008, will provide information about the steps that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) takes to check the accuracy of pilot medical certificates. Federal regulations require that pilots have both pilot certificates and medical certificates prior to operating an aircraft and meet several requirements, depending on the level of certificate FAA issues the applicant. Coast Guard issues merchant mariner licenses and documents to officers such as vessel masters only after they meet certain regulatory requirements. For example, officers must meet physical requirements, pass written knowledge tests, and have specified amounts and types of experience and training, among other requirements. Vessel masters also must undergo certain background checks prior to obtaining a license or document to ensure they can safely assume the responsibilities of a credentialed mariner, do not present a threat to national or transportation security, and do not have connections to terrorism. Drivers of commercial motor vehicles must meet federal minimum requirements before operating a commercial vehicle. FMCSA develops requirements for operating commercial vehicles while states issue commercial drivers' licenses. Federal regulations also require that state driver licensing agencies check applicants' driving records for safety violations before issuing a commercial driver's license and that motor carriers check drivers' employment histories before hiring them. In addition, federal regulations require that TSA complete a security check for drivers seeking an endorsement to haul hazardous materials.

Federal regulations require that pilots, vessel masters, and commercial drivers undergo physical examinations by licensed physicians or other health care professionals to ensure they meet minimum physical fitness standards. Vessel masters and commercial drivers select licensed medical professionals to complete the exam while pilots need to be examined by an FAA-certified aviation medical examiner. For these workers, the physical examination generally entails a review of the applicant's medical history, including prescribed medication, and a physical examination, including testing the applicant's vision and hearing acuity and measuring heart rate and blood pressure. Medical professionals generally look for signs of pathological or disqualifying conditions such as heart disease; diabetes; impaired vision or hearing; psychosis; drug or alcohol dependence; and any disease, condition, defect, or treatment that prevents or could prevent the applicant from safely performing his or her duties. For pilots and commercial drivers, the aviation medical examiner or licensed medical examiner, respectively, issues the medical certificates in cases where applicants pass a physical examination. Coast Guard issues mariner credentials for vessel masters once it receives and reviews a completed medical examination report from a licensed medical professional, when the applicant is found qualified in all other respects. TSA and Coast Guard are responsible for conducting background checks for selected pilots and vessel masters, respectively, while FMCSA is responsible for checking that state driver licensing agencies do not issue commercial licenses to drivers that have not undergone required checks. For example, TSA conducts criminal history and security checks for pilots working for aircraft operators and those requiring unescorted access to sensitive areas in commercial airports and vessel master license applicants applying for a Transportation Worker Identification Credential to ensure they are not threats to national and transportation security. Coast Guard checks license applicants' criminal histories and driving records for convictions. The agencies complete the background checks for both pilots and vessel masters using many of the same databases. For example, criminal background checks for both positions make use of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Criminal Justice Information Center databases, as well as the National Driver Register. TSA's security checks for selected pilots and vessel masters include use of terrorist, criminal, and immigration watch lists. Unlike FAA and Coast Guard, FMCSA has no direct role in conducting background checks of commercial drivers.