U.S. and State Regulators Suspend Trucking Rules During COVID-19 Emergency

The ripple effects of COVID-19 are affecting us all in ways large and small. One of the biggest impacts has been a shortage of goods, especially supplies urgently needed to provide medical care to those affected. 

Concerned citizens, many of whom have been ordered to remain sheltered in their homes, also feel pressure to stock up on enough groceries and essential items to last throughout the quarantine.

Trucking Is More Important Than Ever, But Danger Increases On the Road

All of this activity has led to a huge spike in demand for goods. To meet the demand, we need more truck shipments than ever before. And to ensure that those shipments are not delayed, federal and state regulators have temporarily suspended certain rules. Some of these rule easings only apply to trucks carrying critical medical supplies, while others apply to truck shipments as a whole.

Measures like this are considered necessary during a time of crisis, but they can introduce risk. There are risks to the truck drivers themselves, other drivers on the road, and even pedestrians and cyclists. 

Rules like mandatory “hours of service” reduce the chances that truck drivers will get into an accident and cause injuries or deaths. When these rules are suspended, drowsy truck drivers may pose a threat to everyone around them. One could easily argue that this threat pales in comparison to a virus that multiplies exponentially. Still, it doesn’t negate the pain and suffering of thousands who are injured on the road each year.  

If you’re hurt in a truck accident during this time of crisis, it may be unclear which rules should have applied to the truck driver in question and why. Experienced truck accident attorneys will need to work hard to provide these answers. They’ll likely have to test the boundaries of legal theory, considering we are deep into uncharted territory.

You have the right to learn about your legal options and inquire about a liability insurance claim for your injury. Call the law offices of Steinger, Greene & Feiner at (800) 431-6841 or contact us online to get answers to your questions during a free, no-obligation case review.

FMCSA Suspends Hours of Service for “Emergency Relief” Shipments

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued an emergency declaration on March 13, 2020 that provides “regulatory relief” for certain types of truck shipments.

Put in simple terms, the announcement meant that Hours of Service (HoS) rules no longer apply to certain shipments. 

Under normal circumstances, truck drivers can only work a certain amount of hours per day and week. They must take mandatory breaks every so often, and they must not return to the road until the hours of service period has lapsed.

For the time being, the rules don’t apply to shipments of goods the FMCSA considers necessary for quarantining citizens and medical providers.

The specific language is as follows:

“FMCSA’s declaration provides for regulatory relief for commercial motor vehicle operations providing direct assistance supporting emergency relief efforts intended to meet immediate needs for:

  • “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 hours of service rules do go back into effect once the shipment is completed. Drivers forced to work longer than the regular amount of hours must take a mandatory 10-hour rest break before returning to the road.

FMCSA Suspends Hundreds of Trucking Rules for Medical Supplies Shipments

The FMCSA issued a much more broad “regulatory relief” order the same day the hours of service rule suspension was announced.

“By execution of this Emergency Declaration, motor carriers and drivers providing direct assistance in support of relief efforts related to the COVID-19 outbreaks are granted emergency relief from Parts 390 through 399 of Title 49 Code of Federal Regulations, except as restricted.”

The order was justified under the specific language of 42 U.S.C. 5121, et seq., and pursuant to 49 CFR 390.23(a)(l)(i).

Tangled legal phrasings may have made the announcement slip under the radar, but the ramifications are huge.

In effect, CFR Title 49 Parts 390 through 399 encompasses most of the restrictions that apply to commercial trucking operations. 

For instance, §391.11 “General qualifications of drivers” lists one of the requirements for being a driver as: “Can, by reason of experience, training, or both, safely operate the type of commercial motor vehicle he/she drives.” In other words, carriers can legally allow someone who is not qualified to operate a truck safely to drive a shipment of emergency medical supplies.

Let’s consider another lynchpin rule: §393.40 “Required brake systems.” This rule mandates that all brakes on a truck must be operational and meet federal standards for crash readiness. Offering “relief” from this rule legally allows a carrier to put a vehicle in service that has non-compliant brakes, potentially triggering a life-threatening accident.

One justification for these broad easements is that the rules all resume effect as soon as the emergency shipment is done. The rules remove oversight and limit enforcement actions that could slow the supply chain for critical medical equipment and supplies. 

But commercial carriers are notorious for flouting existing rules, let alone exceptions. A recent Department of Labor investigation found that one carrier, “retaliated against a driver who repeatedly voiced concerns to management about faulty vehicle maintenance – including missing or inoperative headlights and air pressure leaks.” 

The carrier also regularly pressured the driver in question to violate hours of service rules.

Considering this level of regulatory evasion, it’s entirely possible that a vehicle or driver will be in non-compliance once a medical supplies delivery is made and both stay in service, posing an extreme risk to others on the road.

Your Legal Rights Following a Truck Accident Injury

By litigating liability cases against negligent carriers that cause accidents, truck accident lawyers can fight for the rights of their clients. In doing so, they establish clear lines of responsibility, even in an emergency.

Many truck accidents that occur during these times may be exempt from normal liability rules. But at the same time, the courts may later determine that the “regulatory relief” statutes were improperly implemented. They may also decide that the carrier or third party in question went above and beyond the affordances the rule suspensions allowed.

In other words, the fact that laws were relaxed does not provide a blanket excuse for an accident. Injured truck accident victims — and survivors of wrongful death truck accidents — may still be able to hold negligent parties responsible for their medical costs and other losses.

Any time you have been hurt by a truck accident in South Florida or Nashville and need legal assistance, know that Steinger, Green & Feiner are there for you. Schedule your free, no-obligation case review now by calling (800) 431-6841 or by using our simple form to contact us online.