Livestock haulers want federal regulators to keep in place the 16-month-long emergency hours-of-service waiver for truck drivers and carriers until at least the end of August despite an economy that has largely reopened for business.
The first-of-its-kind, 50-state exemption was rolled out in March 2020 in response to a national emergency brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak. The waiver gives drivers more time to make deliveries without violating federal work-hour requirements. It has been modified, expanded and extended several times as the types of products that shippers and consumers needed to flow freely through the supply chain evolved from food and fuel to face masks and vaccines.
The latest extension, issued on May 26, is set to expire at the end of August. However, FMCSA Deputy Administrator Meera Joshi noted in the extension that her agency intended to review the status of the order as of July 1 to decide whether to modify or lift it sooner “if conditions warrant.”
A spokesman for FMCSA told FreightWaves on Thursday that the agency was continuing to closely monitor the situation. “At this time, however, there was no change to report on the status of the emergency declaration,” he said.
Trucking outbound tender volume, an indicator of economic activity, have held strong since August 2020.
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That is good news for livestock haulers, whose commodity has been at the top of the list of cargo eligible to be hauled under the waiver since it was added to the exemption in June 2020.
“We’re continuing to move livestock so that we can get meat and other proteins on the store shelves in what’s still considered a global pandemic,” Allison Rivera, executive director of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, told FreightWaves.
“Our small-business truckers have shown over more than a year that they’ve been able to use it to avoid food shortages while maintaining a high level of safety on the road. We want to make sure that when there are disruptions in the supply chain our drivers have the ability to pivot. The emergency order gives us that flexibility.”
Confusion and violations
But depending on the commodity being hauled and the type of hauler — employee driver versus owner-operator, for example — the exemption could be causing more confusion than it’s worth.
“What we’ve heard from some of our members is that sometimes brokers, shippers and receivers are telling drivers that what they’re hauling for them is covered under the exemption,” said Lewie Pugh, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “But drivers are getting ticketed, because the type of product technically isn’t considered to be ‘emergency’ under the waiver. I tell drivers to use their common sense in these situations. The problem is the order leaves some room for interpretation.”
David Heller, vice president of government affairs for the Truckload Carriers Association, said most of his members probably were not using the exemption in the first place. “They didn’t need to, because during the height of the pandemic there were no cars on the road and congestion was low. They were operating under business-as-usual conditions.”
Truck safety advocates have been cautioning since as early as December 2020 that safety should be a priority in expanding and extending the waiver. The Truck Safety Coalition pointed out that with rising vaccination rates, “we are optimistic that additional exemptions may be unnecessary,” according to Zach Cahalan, the group’s executive director.
“The Truck Safety Coalition understands we’re living in a unique time and narrowly tailored hours-of-service emergency exceptions, as advised by public health officials, may be appropriate in response to the ongoing public health emergency,” Cahalan told FreightWaves. “Should emergency exemptions continue to be needed at this time, we’d encourage they contain safeguards to protect truck drivers as well as all road users.”
Cahalan pointed out that the National Transportation Safety Board routinely cites fatigue as a major factor in commercial motor vehicle crashes, “and this fact should factor heavily in all exemption considerations.”