Three years ago, a dump truck driver with 31 citations ran a red light in the District and ended the life of a 17-year-old honor student. The trucking industry called the accident a sad, isolated case of a driver who shouldn't have been on the road.

But federal officials have concluded that bad commercial drivers are a nationwide problem made worse by weak communication among states and a licensing system that allows drivers to hide medical problems and drug use.

The National Transportation Safety Board will open hearings in New Orleans tomorrow aimed at tightening loopholes in the licensing process for the nation's 9.6 million commercial drivers. One proposal under consideration is approving specific physicians to perform medical screenings for commercial licensing.

"It is clear that the medical certification program needs to be strengthened a great deal to ensure drivers behind the wheel are in fact fit to drive," said Joseph Osterman, director of the office of highway safety at the National Transportation Safety Board. "I don't believe the majority of the drivers out there have this kind of problem, but if it's 10 percent, that's 1 million drivers."

Under current rules, any physician can sign a medical release for a commercial driver--a situation that regulators and physicians say has led to fraud and abuse.

"You take a form, go to any doctor you want and go through a physical," Osterman said. "The doctor may or may not know anything about the requirements of your job as a truck driver. It's not much more different than the form you need to go to Boy Scout camp. If they don't pass, they move on down the road to another doctor until they find someone who signs the form. . . . In one case, a driver got his brother to sign the form."

Natalie Hartenbaum, a Philadelphia-based physician who has been studying medical certification requirements for the Federal Highway Administration, said she has routinely seen truck and bus drivers with significant medical problems who had been certified by doctors.

"There are numerous cases where private physicians have qualified and signed the card for people who clearly don't meet the criteria," said Hartenbaum, who plans to testify in New Orleans tomorrow. "People have been blind in one eye, deaf, have significant heart disease or multiple medical problems. And they return again and again and get qualified."

The proposal to steer drivers to physicians on a federally approved list is similar to the way the Federal Aviation Administration handles medical exams for commercial pilots. The NTSB will make recommendations on any changes to the U.S. Department of Transportation by the end of the year, Osterman said.

The American Trucking Association, which represents the country's trucking companies, opposes beefing up medical scrutiny, saying it is unnecessary.

"We by no means want drivers who are not medically qualified on the road," said Joel Dandrea, the association's director of training and development. "But just because another industry has a particular process in place, it doesn't mean that system is going to work in the trucking industry. I haven't seen hard evidence suggesting that will bring about any great changes."

More than 5,000 people die each year in crashes involving trucks. It is difficult to know what percentage of the fatal crashes are due to unfit drivers, federal authorities say. But a 1990 NTSB study found that 10 percent of 182 fatal accidents in eight states involved drivers whose health was a major contributing factor.

Concern about truck safety is growing in this country, as the number of trucks on the nation's roads continues to balloon, Osterman said. Federal officials are holding their hearing in New Orleans because it is the site of a May 9 crash in which a tour bus slammed into an embankment, killing 22 people. The bus driver, who was on the verge of retirement, reportedly had congestive heart failure. He also had been undergoing dialysis, which left him dizzy.

Regulators also want to address the lack of a centralized reporting system. When drivers move across state lines, bad driving records don't necessarily follow, Osterman said. "If a motor carrier wants to hire you and they search for your violations, they may not necessarily be getting them all," he said.

Some states allow drivers to cleanse their bad records if they agree to attend remedial driving courses.

The trucking industry supports a thorough, centralized reporting system because motor carrier companies need to know the detailed driving records of job applicants, Dandrea said.

In the case of the 1997 District accident, which NTSB officials cited as an example of the need for a centralized reporting system, the city revoked the driving license for Willis Curry after he chalked up 31 violations in several jurisdictions, ranging from driving with unsecured and overweight loads to cutting off other vehicles. But 10 days later, the city's Bureau of Adjudication reissued his license, saying he could drive while working.

On Aug. 12, Curry drove a 10-wheel dump truck weighing about 30 tons through a red light on Military Road. The truck overturned and crushed a Plymouth Acclaim driven by 17-year-old Benjamin Cooper, who died.