For years, the Transportation Department has allowed individuals who have lost a limb or the use of a limb to operate trucks in interstate commerce -- if they get a waiver from the Federal Highway Administration's Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety. But handicapped drivers were barred from driving passenger buses and trucks carrying hazardous cargo. Last week the FHWA, citing studies showing handicapped drivers had no more accidents than their able-bodied counterparts, proposed to let handicapped drivers operate any commercial vehicle if they pass the existing test on 216 safety items, including a 35-mile road test.

In addition, the proposal would permit handicapped drivers to apply for a government waiver on their own, without first getting a provisional job offer from a motor carrier. If the carrier hired a handicapped driver already cleared by the safety bureau, the carrier would be responsible for reporting all of the driver's accidents. (Able-bodied drivers' accidents are reported only if they cause $2,000 or more in damages.)

The American Bus Association has objected, saying that public perception of bus safety influences the public's desire to ride buses -- apparently a euphemistic way of saying that a passenger who boarded a bus and noticed the driver has an artificial hand or leg might turn around and take a train. Other opponents of the change are the American Insurance Association and the American Trucking Associations Inc. The Teamsters have supported the rule so far, as has the Disability Rights Education Defense Fund Inc