The COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic has led to unprecedented changes to many ways of life. One significant change has occurred in the commercial trucking industry. On March 13, 2020, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued its first-ever declaration of nationwide relief. The announcement came after President Trump declared a state of national emergency. Under the FMCSA’s declaration, commercial trucking companies and their drivers may act outside of certain previous rules, including hours of service regulations, for the good of the public.
What HOS Regulations Have Been Lifted and Why?
The FMCSA has granted hours of service (HOS) regulatory relief amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Typically, HOS regulations restrict how long a truck driver may operate a vehicle without a rest break. HOS regulations make commercial trucking safer by reducing the risk of drowsy or fatigued driving. HOS regulations institute an 11-hour driving limit for commercial truck drivers after 10 consecutive hours off duty. They also enact a 14-hour total limit on consecutive driving hours, plus mandatory rest breaks of at least 30 minutes every 8 hours.
The FMCSA’s national emergency declaration has temporarily suspended hours of service regulations for commercial truck drivers. The goal of the change is to allow truck drivers to deliver necessary goods, such as medical equipment and food, to impacted areas faster. It applies to trucks delivering COVID-19 related medical supplies and tests, masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, soaps, disinfectants, food for restocking emergencies, temporary housing and quarantine facility supplies, people transported for medical or quarantine purposes, and emergency personnel.
The declaration temporarily eliminates the FMCSA’s HOS rule, allowing a commercial truck driver with designated emergency goods or qualifying supplies to operate his or her vehicle without any hours of service restrictions. Routine commercial truck drivers who are not exclusively transporting essential supplies are still subject to the hours of service restrictions. Many state governments have followed the nation’s lead and waived their statewide HOS regulations as well.
Risks of Not Following HOS Regulations
The COVID-19 related changes to truck driver regulations may have an unintended effect on the safety of commercial trucking. Abolishing the hours of service regulations for some drivers could encourage them to drive while fatigued. Driving fatigued is a common issue among commercial truck drivers due to the nature of their jobs. The HOS rule went into effect to limit how many hours a trucker drives at a time, reduce the number of drowsy truck drivers on the road and reduce the number of related traffic accidents.
Drowsy driving is a significant issue among truck drivers. The FMCSA states that at least 13% of commercial truck drivers involved in collisions are fatigued at the time of the truck accident. Truck driver fatigue is common due to long hours on the road, boredom, lack of proper sleep, sleep conditions, extended or nighttime hours, and health conditions. Sleep apnea, for example, affects a large percentage of truck drivers due to contributing factors such as obesity, smoking, sleeping in unusual places and driving overnight. HOS regulations may be the only thing keeping truck drivers from overextending themselves and driving while tired.
Failing to follow HOS regulations, even lawfully through the national declaration, could expose truck drivers and those around them to higher risks of drowsy driving accidents. Driving past the 11- and 14-hour maximums previously instated by the hours of service rule could lead to truckers driving while fatigued. Drowsiness or fatigue can cause issues such as slowed reflexes, delayed reaction times, impaired judgment and the possibility of falling asleep behind the wheel. Drowsy drivers can cause serious and deadly truck accidents. Without HOS rules to follow, not all truck drivers will know when to pull over and rest. The rate of drowsy driving truck accidents, therefore, may increase under the new federal declaration.