In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has sharply increased the demand for deliveries of food, medical supplies, and other life-sustaining items. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, 1.6 million drivers were responsible for moving 70% of the total freight in the U.S. Our country arguably relies more on truck drivers’ services now than it ever has in the past.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has responded to this situation by adjusting rules related to drivers’ hours of service. For the safety of truckers and other drivers alike, it is important to understand the emergency changes that have been made to trucking regulations, and how they might increase the risk of truck accidents.
Hours-of-Service Rules for Truck Drivers During COVID-19
On March 13, the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued an emergency declaration that suspended hours-of-service (HOS) regulations for many truck drivers during the coronavirus pandemic. The suspension intended to increase trucking efficiency as delivery demand skyrocketed, and to provide material relief for coronavirus-adjacent industries. This emergency action by the DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) was the first nationwide one of its kind in the United States.
Initially, the HOS suspension applied to deliveries of COVID-19-related medical supplies, food for grocery stores, supplies to build quarantine facilities and emergency housing, and emergency service personnel. On March 18, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) expanded the suspension to include drivers delivering fuel, non-food groceries, and raw materials needed for essential goods.
Under typical HOS regulations, truckers can drive no longer than 11 consecutive hours in a 14-hour workday. Up until the COVID outbreak, drivers also had to take 30-minute breaks every 8 hours, and 10 full hours off-duty at the end of a workday. Furthermore, within a 7- or 8-day working period, drivers could drive no more than 60 or 70 hours.
The FMCSA’s declaration temporarily lifted these HOS regulations. This has allowed truckers to drive for longer stretches of time than are usually deemed safe. Coronavirus relief drivers are still expected to monitor their exhaustion levels and take necessary breaks, but are not mandated to stop driving after the usual on-duty periods.
More recently, in May, the FMCSA announced a set of revised long-term HOS rules. Unlike the administration’s emergency declarations, these rules will extend beyond the end of the coronavirus crisis.
These latest revisions grant truckers more flexibility in their on- and off-duty time. Now, drivers will be allowed to split their mandatory 10-hour break into two parts of either 7/3 hours or 8/2 hours. They also no longer have to be off-duty for their 30-minute breaks, as past regulations required. Instead of having to go off-duty to clock a break, truckers can now count non-driving work activities – like pumping fuel or waiting for the truck to be loaded – as “breaks.”
The revisions also lengthen the permissible truck-driving period in certain scenarios. First, short-distance delivery drivers can now be on-duty for up to 14 hours. Previously, the maximum on-duty period for these drivers was 12 hours. Second, in the event of snow, thunderstorms, or other inclement weather, the revised regulations will extend the acceptable driving period by 2 hours.
Information and Resources for Drivers About COVID-19
Because of the travel and transactions that their jobs require, many truck drivers are at a heightened risk of coronavirus infection. For their own health as well as the safety of others on the highway, it is important that truckers minimize their exposure to COVID-19 and understand the early signs and symptoms of the disease.
There are a number of steps that drivers can take to limit their chances of contracting and spreading the coronavirus. The use of personal protective equipment, including masks and sunglasses, could help protect the wearer and others from infection. Gloves are also an important tool for truckers to guard against disease spread if used properly. Whenever possible, they should be worn for pumping gas and handling deliveries.
Drivers can also protect themselves and others on the road by avoiding crowded or heavily trafficked areas on their routes. This could involve opting for takeout meals instead of sitting down in a restaurant, or practicing social distancing in maintenance shops when it is necessary to stop for repairs. Furthermore, when using public bathrooms or showers, drivers should consider bringing their own sanitary products in case there is a shortage in the facility.
Unfortunately, none of these strategies are foolproof. If a truck driver contracts COVID-19, the ability to recognize the illness in its early stages can minimize the harm it causes. Common signs and symptoms of the coronavirus include:
- Persistent cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Fever and/or chills
- Feelings of exhaustion and fatigue
- Unexplained loss of smell and taste
- Body aches
Safety Tips Truck Drivers Need to Improve During COVID-19
In addition to the threat of the coronavirus itself, truck drivers must also navigate new and limited HOS regulations. Many drivers are also under an enormous amount of pressure to transport relief-related deliveries as efficiently as possible. Given this pressure, and without the usual HOS requirements, it can be very difficult for drivers to know when to take a break.
In lieu of the hour-based limitations, here are some tips for truckers that can help keep everyone safe out on the roads:
- As the workday goes on, carefully monitor your exhaustion levels.
- Take breaks or stop for the day when you feel too tired to drive safely, regardless of how many hours you’ve clocked.
- Consider going off-duty to better recharge during your breaks, instead of counting a work-related non-driving activity as a break.
- Resist any urge to speed or execute risky driving maneuvers to deliver pandemic-related goods more quickly.
Crashes Caused by Tired Truckers During the Pandemic
Even before the coronavirus crisis, overtired drivers have caused many truck accidents every year. Now, the recent changes made to HOS regulations have made truckers even more likely to drive when they should rest instead. The emergency HOS suspension, especially, has opened the door to frequent instances of truck-driving while dangerously exhausted.
For victims of truck crashes during the pandemic, the current state of FMCSA regulations is likely to complicate the matter of seeking compensation. Truck accident cases are often extremely complex, involving multiple parties that may be held liable and a range of state and federal laws that apply to commercial trucks. They will only be made more complex by the shifting HOS regulations.
If you have been in a recent crash, it is important to contact an experienced truck accident attorney so you can better understand your options for recovery going forward.
Contact a Colorado Truck Accident Lawyer
With three offices and a wealth of experience, the Colorado truck accident attorneys at Olson Law Firm can help you make sense of your accident. We are equipped to aggressively pursue the compensation that the at-fault party owes you.
Call us now to schedule your free, no-obligation consultation with a member of our team.
Sean Olson is much more than just a personal injury lawyer. Sean is an advocate who helps those who are injured navigate our complex legal system. And he is a voice for those who are injured and cannot speak for themselves.