Hurricane Florence made landfall today, knocking out power for some 300,000 people and forcing thousands more to evacuate their homes along the Atlantic seaboard. Whether one is stuck waiting out the storm at home or seeking refuge on higher ground, those affected by Florence will need to be resupplied with food, water, fuel, and other essentials.
That means goods will have to be trucked into the storm-ravaged coastline. That would be a lot harder if the feds hadn't waived regulations that limit how much time the curriers of relief supplies can spend behind the wheel.
On Monday the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration—the body responsible for regulating trucking—granted blanket exemptions to federal hours-of-service regulations for drivers carrying relief supplies to states affected by Hurricane Florence.
Normally drivers are permitted a 14-hour workday, which allows for 11 hours of driving and several mandated breaks. Drivers are also prevented from working more than 70 hours in a given week before having to rest for 34 hours. Monday's suspension of these rules means that drivers will not have to idle away their time at rest stops and motels while storm victims eat through what fuel, food, and water they have on hand.
This is, of course, a sensible move in a time of a disaster. But as with the suspension of other restrictive federal regulations during times of need, it raises the question of what these rules might be costing us in calmer times.
Weather-related waivers are routine, says Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA). "It's done for storms, whether it be for floods or hurricanes, it's done for snow, or dramatically cold weather. We watch with great interest looking for the mushroom clouds. We don't see them. Safety doesn't go to hell."
The current hours-for-service rules for truckers require that they put all their 14 hours of work in one chunk. Once a driver gets going, he or she can't decide a few hours later to pause the clock to take an extended break or wait for traffic to clear up.
This rigidity has been made onlyworse by new electronic monitors that track trucks' movements in real time, giving drivers very little wiggle room. Even something as simple as moving a truck from one parking space to another can start the clock ticking on a driver's allotted time on the road, with no chance to pause it.
Far from furthering safety, Spencer argues, these inflexible rules could make the roads more dangerous. They give drivers an incentive to stay behind the wheel when they would otherwise take a break to get some rest, skip heavy traffic, or wait out inclement weather.
Trucking companies that implemented electronic monitors prior to them being federally mandated found they could not quantify any safety benefits from doing so. Nor did they see any safety improvements from stricter hours-of service compliance.
Drivers report much the same thing.
Ellie O'Daire, a driver for Jim Palmer Trucking, has seen the problems the rules' rigidity can cause first hand. Having to take 14 hours of drive time in one chunk, combined with strictly mandated breaks, all enforced by electric monitors, does a poor job of accounting for individual truckers' circumstances or fitness to drive.
"There are a lot of ways where you get into situations where the computer is telling you that need to sleep but you're awake. Or the exact opposite, where the computer is saying you have hours to drive but you're very tired," says O'Daire. "This just runs counter to the purpose of the device."
More frustrating still are strict caps on how much one can work in a single week before having to take those mandated 34 hours off. Without any built-in flexibility, this can also leave drivers stranded nowhere near their destination—or, maybe worse, tantalizingly close to it.
Making matters worse: These weekly hours caps will also include work done by truckers that has nothing to do with them being behind the wheel. "Say a customer has you on the dock helping them load and unload the trailer in one pace, that's three hours less driving you can do in one week. It's just directly removing money from our pockets," says O'Daire.
In August, the Trump administration announced that it would be starting the process of revising these rules to give drivers more flexibility, a move OOIDA strongly supports. In March, Rep. Brian Babin (R–Texas) introduced the REST Act, which would allow drivers to hit pause on their on-duty time for as much as three hours.
Neither of these efforts is going to produce immediate change. So as Hurricane Florence passes, rules that are now seen as an unnecessary impediment to supplying disaster-stricken areas with life-saving relief will soon again become crucial safety protections we can't do without.
"In a perfect world [the regulations] would work perfectly," O'Diare says, "but trucking is not a perfect world."