During the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) relaxed hours of service rules to ensure an uninterrupted supply of goods during the crisis. This led some in the trucking industry to suggest that the waiver meant that rules weren't necessary in the first place.
Their thinking went, "If they can just waive the rules any time they like, then those rules aren't really about driver safety." It was a silly argument then and it's a silly argument now. We make rules for ordinary circumstances, then adjust when an emergency occurs. If you speed down a highway, you'll likely get a ticket. If you speed on the way to the hospital because you're in labor, very few police officers will write that ticket.
Of course, we have to have this conversation again, because FMCSA recently suspended hours of service rules for drivers providing hurricane disaster relief to Florida. Let's go over what FMCSA did, why they did it, and how this action doesn't undermine the case for hours of service rules during the 99% of the time when there isn't a looming life-threatening natural disaster.
FMSCA Suspends Hours of Service Rules for Hurricane Ian Relief
On September 28th the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued a Regional Emergency Declaration for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee in response to Hurricane Ian.
FMCSA's Emergency Declaration allows "motor carriers and drivers providing direct assistance to the emergency in direct support of relief efforts related to the emergency" temporary permission to exceed the regular commercial driver-mandated maximum driving time. Direct support is defined as any "transportation and other relief services" focused on the "restoration of essential supplies or essential services."
That is a lot of technical language. We can break this down a bit more for easier understanding.
What Does Allowing Truckers to Exceed Hours of Service Mean?
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is an agency in the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) that regulates the trucking industry in the United States. FMCSA monitors crash data and route patterns of commercial vehicles and can adjust or create regulations based on their research. Additionally, FMCSA specifies what regulations can be suspended during the event of an emergency and what circumstances allow for an emergency declaration.
In non-emergency situations, there are FMCSA regulations that limit how many hours a commercial truck driver can work during the week and per shift. For example, FMCSA mandates that commercial trucks carrying property may drive a "max of 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off duty." Additionally, commercial drivers carrying passengers may drive a "max of 10 hours after 8 consecutive hours off duty." These same regulations also limit how many total hours a commercial driver can spend on duty during the course of a week.
The regulations aim to keep drivers, and the motorists they share the road with, safe. How well they achieve this goal is open for debate, but hours of service regulations exist to keep truck drivers from falling asleep behind the wheel.
But if the Regulations Keep Roads Safe, Why Waive Them?
It is no secret that driving drowsy or fatigued is deadly. The National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that fatigued drivers killed 633 people in 2020. Additionally, NHTSA estimates an average of 50,000 injuries occur due to fatigued driving every year. "But there is broad agreement across the traffic safety, sleep science, and public health communities that this is an underestimate of the impact of drowsy driving." So, why would FMCSA allow commercial trucks to drive for over 10 hours straight with no rest breaks? Simply put, it is a risk-cost-benefit analysis.
FMCSA deemed Hurricane Ian a serious threat and issued an emergency declaration allowing extended trucking hours. The risk is that there will be more commercial truck accidents due to drowsy driving. Basically, FMCSA wants relief supplies and personnel to move across the US at a faster rate, and it is relying on truck drivers to avoid accidents.
FMCSA hopes that drivers conveying relief faster will reduce the overall scope of the disaster and ultimately save more lives.
The Exception Doesn't Undermine the Rule
Just because our government waives a regulation during a disaster, does not mean the regulation is useless. Before hours of service rules, it was not uncommon for some truck drivers to drive for days on end. This led to some drivers falling asleep at the wheel and killing other motorists. The government sought to combat the problem posed by fatigued drivers by limiting how much time they could spend behind the wheel. That's how FMCSA created the hours of service rules.
Waiving a rule temporarily is an acknowledgment that an extreme circumstance poses a more serious threat to life than the circumstances which gave rise to the rule in the first place. People who complain about the waiver seem to think that there is a magic rule out there that works in every situation.
This fundamentally misunderstands how the law and good public policy work. There are laws against shooting people, but then we make exceptions for soldiers at war and citizens when a bad guy threatens their life. We have minimum wage laws, but then except for certain agricultural and seasonal workers. Suspending hours of service rules in response to a natural disaster is just another example of adjusting rules to changing circumstances.
Most importantly, lawmakers crafted FMCSA's authority to provide these exceptions in times of emergency. In this instance, the exception doesn't undermine the rule: it's a part of the rule.