Across the country, Americans are feeling the effects of scarcity as anxious buyers snatch up large quantities of household essentials like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and dry goods. This has caused rising concern not just among consumers, but also among pharmacies and medical providers who are struggling to keep up with the very real and serious needs of the critically ill.

To alleviate the pressure of empty shelves and supply cabinets, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued a national emergency declaration on March 13 to help ensure that supplies are delivered quickly so stores and clinics can be restocked.

As per the national emergency declaration, the hours-of-service policies have been relaxed for drivers who carry emergency supplies. These supplies include:

  • Medical supplies and equipment for testing, diagnosing, and treating of COVID-19
  • Supplies and equipment, including masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, soap, and disinfectants, necessary for healthcare workers, 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
  • Individuals designated by Federal, State, or local authorities for transport for medical, isolation, or quarantine purposes
  • Medical and emergency service personnel

Since the declaration was issued, FMCSA has expanded on some of its definitions to add paper products, immediate precursor raw materials, and fuel to the list.

While these categories are broad, the declaration intentionally notes that carriers cannot claim an hours-of-service exception for transporting only nominal quantities of the above items in mixed loads. Mixed loads were initially excluded from the declaration but have been added in through the expansion.

Safety Requirements

What does the relief mean for an industry that has struggled with safety regulations and an increase in accidents?

Although the FMCSA has been commended for its swift action to help support consumers during this time, hours of service can present a major safety concern for drivers and their carriers. Truck fatalities are currently at their highest level in almost 30 years based on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2017, there were 4,761 large truck fatalities.

Under normal circumstances, the FMCSA hours of service rules dictate how long a driver can be behind the wheel following consecutive hours off duty and are foundational to the FMCSA’s efforts to manage driver safety. According to a 2019 report published by FleetOwner, hours of service are one of the top areas of driver violation.

However, these are not normal circumstances, notes Ben Hartford, transportation analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co. “This is an unprecedented period with still-unknowable impacts, making attempts to forecast future aggregate demand impossible,” comments Hartford. “But we’re confident about a couple of things: 1) we should remain focused on the crisis’ human element; and 2) greater challenges still lie ahead. To that end, the cascading closures of events nationwide and globally in recent days will be essential in arresting the virus’ outbreak. Meantime, the acuteness of the economic impact could exceed anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes — including the 2008-09 financial crisis.”

Even though the order lifts restrictions on how long a driver can be behind the wheel, it provides protection for drivers who might be coerced by their employer to drive when tired.

According to the declaration, “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.”

The emergency declaration also requires that a driver receive a minimum of 10 hours off duty for transporting property and 8 for passengers.