In 1938, the federal government enacted what are called hours-of-service (HOS) rules for truck drivers, intending to cut down on fatigued driving and resulting accidents. After President Trump declared a national emergency last Friday to help deal with the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. Department of Transportation has exempted certain truck drivers from HOS rules. This kind of regulatory relief has happened on the state level before, states pausing drive time limits inside the state during natural disasters, and Connecticut and Ohio have done so again for this current health crisis. But the federal government has never done so in the 82-year history of the legislation.
The exemption doesn't apply to every truck and trucker on the road, only those delivering emergency supplies and personnel helping manage the outbreak. This means:
- 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.
The HOS rule permits truckers to drive a maximum of 11 hours within any 14-hour period, and within that 11 hours, a driver can do a maximum eight hours consecutively before being required to stop for at least 30 minutes. After that 14-hour period, the trucker must take a ten-hour break, and eight of those ten hours must be spent in the bunk, ideally sleeping. There are a number of loopholes and workarounds, but the HOS aren't restricted to calendar days; a trucker could drive five hours, take a ten-hour break, and hit the road for 11 hours.
Under the new regime, truckers must still take a 10-hour break off-duty after delivery of cargo, or eight hours after dropping off passengers. The situation remains in effect until the president declares an end to the emergency or until 11:59 p.m. April 12, 2020, whichever comes first.
Having spent time as an over-the-road trucker, if anyone's worried about highways becoming less safe or truckers getting cranked up again on white-line fever, the concern is misplaced. In my experience, almost all truckers and industry folks I dealt with didn't like — to put it mildly — the HOS rules. Nevertheless, truckers don't want to die, they want to deliver the goods and get paid a fair wage for it. Paradoxically, I was more fatigued more often from having to shoehorn my drive time into HOS rules than I would have been if I'd been free to sleep and drive as needed. And I was not alone in feeling this way.
Thankfully, the declaration makes explicit provision for drivers who want to stop, saying, "[If] the driver informs the motor carrier that he or she needs immediate rest, the driver must be permitted at least 10 consecutive hours off duty before the driver is required to return to the motor carrier’s terminal or the driver’s normal reporting location. Once the driver has returned to the terminal or other location, the driver must be relieved of all duty and responsibilities and must receive a minimum of 10 hours off duty if transporting property, and eight hours if transporting passengers." Even with electronic logs, I took more than one call from a driver manager asking pointedly, "You sure you can't keep going?" Looking at the exempt list above, my question would be what proportion of a load counts as "Food for emergency restocking." If I have half a trailer of onions and the rest is typical freight, which one wins the battle of HOS.
For more science-based safety considerations, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration statistics showed fatigue was only the fourth-leading cause of all truck crashes in 2018. Brake problems were at fault more than four times as often, unfamiliar routes were the leading factor more than three times as often. And data from the Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS) showed that "about 75 percent of truck-related accidents were caused by motorists other than the truck drivers."
Something had to be done, though. Panic has emptied store shelves, the publicized run on gloves and masks spiking sales 817% from February 7 to March 7 compared to the same time last year, goosing canned goods up by 69%, and with no sign of the situation ending. One trucker tweeted a mile-long line of 18-wheelers outside a Procter & Gamble toilet paper facility. But toilet paper — up 169% in sales compared to last year — isn't on the exempt list, so that one might not change soon.