Truckers Are Rushing Supplies to Empty Store Shelves During Coronavirus Crisis. Will Regulators Get Out of the Way?

The churn of new emergency regulatory waivers and restrictions is causing confusion for American manufacturers and freight haulers.


America's freight industry has been working double-time during this coronavirus crisis, shipping fresh supplies to grocery stores and pharmacies that have been picked bare by shoppers preparing to shelter-in-place for the foreseeable future.

To keep the supply chain unbroken under these extraordinary circumstances, both the federal and state governments have been waiving restrictions on truck drivers and rail operators. That regulatory relief is welcome, but industry groups say it doesn't go far enough, and that some measures being taken are actively harming their efforts to get essential goods to their destination.

On Saturday, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) officially declared an emergency, allowing rail operators to request up to 60-day waivers of regulations they can show are getting in the way of their ability to respond to COVID-19.

That move mirrored actions taken by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which on Friday took the extraordinary step of waiving maximum hours rules until April 12 for truck drivers carry essential supplies.

The FMCSA will routinely lift these hours of service (HOS) rules for truck drivers carrying relief supplies like water and food to natural disaster-stricken areas. The agency's Friday nationwide waiver might be unprecedented.

"I don't know of any other situation where there's been a nationwide exemption," says Norita Taylor of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA). "This is uncharted territory with the kind of emergency that's been declared."

Under normal circumstances, cargo-carrying drivers are permitted to be on the clock for 14 hours a day, which includes 11 hours of driving and several mandated breaks. They can also only be on-duty for 70 hours over a consecutive eight-day period before they are required to rest for 34 hours. Drivers carrying passengers can drive only 10 hours each day.

The FMCSA's emergency waiver permits drivers to bypass these hours restrictions so long as they are exclusively carrying essential supplies like medicine, masks, food needed for "emergency restocking," and government or medical personal. "Routine" commercial deliveries are still subject to standard HOS rules, as are drivers carrying mixed loads of essential and non-essential goods.

State governments have followed suit by waiving their own HOS regulations, as well as registration and weigh-in requirements.

Industry groups have cheered on these efforts, while also expressing frustration at the ambiguity of the regulatory waivers being issued at all levels of government.

"Trucks are delivering vital supplies to communities now, but confusion and lack of clarity are causing delays and problems," said American Trucking Associations (ATA) President Chris Spear in a Tuesday letter to President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence asking for clearer and more sweeping regulatory waivers.

For instance, what counts as a "routine," and therefore unexempted, commercial delivery is undefined in the FMCSA order. "We're at a loss in terms of interpreting what Friday's announcement meant," one trucking executive told FreightWaves on Tuesday. "You can go into a lot of stores right now and see no meat, or dairy products wiped off the shelves as well—so are those considered emergency supplies?"

Taylor says that the FCMSA has held calls with trucking industry members to help clear up the confusion. Then this afternoon, the FCMSA issued an expanded emergency declaration that clarifies shipments of "paper products" (i.e. toilet paper) qualify for regulatory exemptions.

There are still a lot of details that need to be ironed out, says Tom Madrecki, Vice President of Supply Chains at the Consumer Brand Association. "If we take supply chains for granted, it's easy to discount everything that it touches" when crafting emergency policies, he says.

Madrecki points to the bans on large crowds that local and state governments are imposing. Some do not clarify if employees at manufacturing facilities are exempt, leaving companies wondering if they can continue production to keep up with demand.

Curfews that don't explicitly exempt delivery drivers are another problem area for the supply chain, says Madrecki, as are the closures of government offices and public facilities. Some states have closed DMVs without granting exemptions or extensions for expiring driver's licenses, leaving some commercial drivers with expired licenses wondering whether they are allowed to be on the road or not.

Some closures have been actively harmful to truck drivers. On Monday, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) ordered the state's rest stops closed, creating a major problem for drivers transversing the state.

"From an outside perspective, it might make sense," said Brandon Moree of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association. "But obviously those areas are vital for truck drivers who need to have a place to park for their 30-minute break or whether it be for their end of shift time off for the night. Not having those places have been a very difficult challenge."

After lobbying from truckers, PennDot announced this afternoon that they would open 13 of the state's 30 rest stops that they identified as being most likely to be used by truckers.

The confusing churn of restrictions and regulatory waivers being issued at all levels of government, while understandable, is creating undue confusion, says Madrecki. Officials need to "establish some uniformity and it needs to happen really quickly. There needs to be that federal leadership," in deciding what uniform policies should look like, he says.

So far it appears regulators are being responsive to problems or confusion their coronavirus-related dictates have created. That so many waivers are needed to keep goods flowing suggests that we came into this crisis way over-regulated. The fact that even necessary crisis-related restrictions have unintended consequences should humble policymakers as they try to mitigate the virus's spread.

NEXT: Are We Battling an Unprecedented Pandemic or Panicking at a Computer-Generated Mirage?

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  1. When in danger, or in doubt
    Run in circles, scream and shout.

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  2. Something must be done!
    This is something.
    Hence, this must be done!

    WTAF, the general public doesn’t congregate or interact at rest areas. The cars section is almost exclusively people who stop to take a dump, allow a dog to take a dump, grab a quick nap to avoid falling asleep at the wheel or some other quick in-and-out. And close ABC liquor stores? EABOD.

    Sure on the trucker side you might have some lot lizards running around distributing beejays and CV, but shuttering these places is like closing the shitter at a factory–they are gonna have to do it somewhere. Now you will see the 30-200 trucks that used to make use of these facilities parked on the shoulder instead–what could possibly go wrong?

    Government at its best.

    By the way, my experience travelling by car has been that if you need a public restroom, the rest areas are usually the cleanest relative to gas stations etc. Most I have seen seem to have a dedicated full-time employee on-site doing nothing but cleaning the bathrooms.

    1. “You know, rest areas are homosexual hangouts.”

      1. “I just had to pee!”

  3. 2020 will be Netflix’s year.

    1. Stock up on #coronababy merchandise now. After weeks of sheltering in place without any sports, I expect there to be a run on it about Xmas time.

  4. What if the truckers are carrying emergency supplies of toilet papers that were manufactured out of vegan, GMO-free, gluten-free, organic, and plutonium-free HEMP fibers, for hipsters?!?!

    NO MERCY for anyone even vaguely associated with druggies and potheads!!!

    The Trumptatorship is NOT helping, either!!!
    Top Trump Campaign Spokesman: Marijuana Must Be ‘Kept Illegal’

    1. “a top reelection campaign aide said the administration’s policy is that cannabis and other currently illegal drugs should remain illegal.”
      Except for MJ I’m pretty sure that was the policy of the Libertarian Party’s 2016 presidential candidate as well.

    2. “I think what the president is looking at is looking at this from a standpoint of a parent of a young person to make sure that we keep our kids away from drugs,”

      Who’s your daddy, America?

    3. Until about 3 years ago, that was the majority opinion in the US. So using it as evidence of a supposed “Trumptatorship” is idiotic.

  5. When the going gets tough, the tough go SHOPPING?

  6. Perhaps the truckers can start working from home. Online. 21st century yo.

    1. Robotically driving their rigs remotely! I also want my car repairs done remotely by robots, as my broken-down car sits in my driveway, or by the roadside! Last butt not least, I want remote robotic ass-wiping, since I am not totally out of toilet paper!

      1. Shut. Up.

  7. Thanks for the article Christian. Yeah this is going to be very complicated particularly the HOS. Since 2018 FMCSA has required that every truck on the road have an ELD (electronic logging device). These things record every movement of the truck, the time and the location and automatically assign a duty status. There are hundreds of manufacturers and every time there is a rule change all devices have to be reprogrammed. In this case they will have to add an exemption and the driver will have to somehow document that the load is somehow critical to the Chinese virus. This is going to require some very specific criteria and every driver and state cop in the country is going to have to learn what the specifics are. Looks good on paper but as a practical matter pretty useless until FMCSA does a lot more rule making. The primary concern seems to be toilet paper so maybe just a TP exemption would suffice.

    1. Not as complicated as you might think. The drivers have bills of lading — if they are even asked.

      The trucks won’t just stop running when the clock runs out, all that happens is that a notice of violation is recorded. There is already an exemption for such things as weather delays, so the companies will just tag the ELD file with the code for this exemption.

  8. Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) ordered the state’s rest stops closed, creating a major problem for drivers transversing the state.

    Did they close the state’s tollbooths also?

    1. Maryland closed the cash lanes – electronic tolling only

  9. Still, this is the opposite of what happened in Atlas Shrugged, so that’s something.

  10. The real problem is the hoarding/panic shopping. People didn’t suddenly need 10x the amount of food and other items that they normally use.

    1. Yeah but there’s a natural limit on that. People only have so much room to fill with extra groceries. I think everyone is now keeping a larger supply at home and thing will even out after that initial burst of activity.

      1. No, most people will simply run through all of the stuff they bought during the panic, then start shopping again.

  11. Gee, the regulators can’t get out of the way! People would realize that the regulators are just another virus.

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  13. The fact that even necessary crisis-related restrictions have unintended consequences should humble policymakers as they try to mitigate the virus’s spread.

    But it won’t.

  14. Sorry, Christian, but you (like so many others) don’t understand the Hours of Service regulations.

    There is no limit on how many hours a driver may be on duty — the limit is on when they must stop DRIVING, based on when they started duty. A driver who starts on duty not involving driving (say, unloading and reloading the trailer) at 1000, then starts actually driving at 2000, can only drive 4 hours. However, he or she may continue to do non-driving work. Before driving again, a 10-hour “turnaround” off-duty period must take place.

    What this often does is to discourage the taking of any breaks beyond those required by regulation. Before this change, a few years ago, a driver with plenty of time to complete a run would often stop at a point of interest, an event, etc. (just planning to run a little later in the day to make the whole 11 hours), but now they keep going, to get the miles in before the 14 hours is up.

  15. We did not go into this “over regulated.” Limits to hours truckers can drive and the vast majority of regulations were put in place because people were irresponsible and did things like drive their trucks too long and too far without required maintenance–endangering our lives.

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