Here’s yet another unforeseen circumstance of the Coronavirus: America’s highway safety regulators last Friday suspended daily driving limits for truck drivers hauling medical supplies, personal and other items necessary for battling the current outbreak possibly leading less safe road conditions.
Here’s the language straight from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration:
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued a national emergency declaration to provide hours-of-service regulatory relief to commercial vehicle drivers transporting emergency relief in response to the nationwide coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. This declaration is the first time FMCSA has issued nation-wide relief and follows President Trump issuing of a national emergency declaration in response to the virus.
Regulations from the FMCSA are in place to protect fatigued truckers from making a potentially fatal error in their multi-ton vehicles. These regulations are taken very seriously. Drivers are required to keep logbooks of all their breaks and drive times to ensure that the rules are followed. From the Interstate Truck Driver’s Guide to Hours of Service:
This window is usually thought of as a “daily” limit even though it is not based on a 24-hour period. You are allowed a period of 14 consecutive hours in which to drive up to 11 hours after being off duty for 10 or more consecutive hours. The 14-consecutive-hour driving window begins when you start any kind of work. Once you have reached the end of this 14-consecutive-hour period, you cannot drive again until you have been off duty for another 10 consecutive hours, or the equivalent of at least 10 consecutive hours off duty. Your driving is limited to the 14-consecutive-hour period even if you take some off-duty time, such as a lunch break or a nap, during those 14 hours.
But now truckers are now finding themselves on the front line of fighting the Coronavirus, both in terms of restocking grocery store shelves and keeping hospitals up and running with personal and supplies. After President Trump declared a national state of emergency last week, the FMCSA acting administrator lifted the limits for drivers hauling much-needed supplies, such as:
- Medical supplies and equipment related to the testing, diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19.
- Supplies and equipment, including masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, soap and disinfectants, necessary for healthcare worker, patient and community safety, sanitation, and prevention of COVID-19 spread in communities.
- Food for emergency restocking of stores.
- Equipment, supplies and persons necessary for establishment and management of temporary housing and quarantine facilities related to COVID-19.
- Persons designated by Federal, State or local authorities for transport for medical, isolation or quarantine purposes.
- Personnel to provide medical or other emergency services.
Note that toilet paper does not make the list. To maintain safe roadways, once a driver has completed their long-haul delivery, the driver is required to rest at least 10 hours after hauling property and at least 8 hours after hauling personnel.
Fatigued driving, however, is a health risk all on its own. According to the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration, drowsy driving killed 795 people in crashes in 2017, though that number is most likely much lower than the reality, as a death caused by falling asleep at the wheel isn’t always clear. NHSTA estimates that at least 91,000 crashes were caused by drowsy drivers in 2017, with 50,000 people injured in those crashes.
The Trump administration was looking into relaxing rules for truckers last year, though suspension of drive time restrictions was never in the cards. The admin pushed for relaxed driving regulations in 2019, with changes that were supported by many truckers who were seeking flexibility in the rules. The changes would have mainly affected how drivers take breaks, allowing drivers to break up their breaks, rather than spending at least 10 continuous hours off the road. These changes were discussed despite the Truck Safety Coalition finding 4,657 large trucks were involved in fatal crashes in 2017, a 10 percent increase over 2016, however the changes have not been implemented.
I probably don’t have to tell you that a crash becomes a much bigger issue if you’re, say, driving a 40-ton semi truck down a free and come up against a 5,000 pound car.
Hopefully self-quarantining will keep the roads a little clearer for tired truckers trying to restock emptying shelves and hospitals and we won’t trade one life-threatening risk for another.