Reporter’s Diary: For emergency Covid-19 runs, Trump admin suspends rule ensuring truckers can sleep

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A livestock truck leaves the Rantoul Foods plant in Rantoul, Il on Tuesday, December 18, 2018. photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Sky Chadde is the Midwest Center’s Gannett Agricultural Data Fellow. He can be reached at sky.chadde@investigatemidwest.org

This story is embargoed for republication until April 4, 2020.

Trump administration officials have suspended a rule intended to keep truckers safe in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Under federal regulations, many drivers of large commercial trucks are supposed to take 10-hour breaks after 14 hours of work, which can include up to 11 hours of driving. But last week that requirement was waived for truckers delivering goods such as medical supplies, food and fuel.

Administration officials said suspension of the hours-of-service rule — which industry had lobbied to remove before the public health crisis — was critical during the outbreak, but it also waives rules that were intended to keep drivers safe during a time when driver deaths and accidents have increased.

In a statement, the acting director of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Jim Mullen, said the decision was critical to getting supplies such as sanitizer to Americans during the health crisis.

"The nation’s truck drivers are on the front lines of this effort and are critical to America’s supply chain," Mullen, who used to be the executive vice president of a large trucking company, said. "We will continue to support them and use our authority to protect the health and safety of the American people.”

Highway safety advocates said they understood why the decision was made, but they had reservations about the effect on drivers. Drivers were putting in grueling hours before the waiver was announced, said Cathy Chase, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

“Like we’re taking care of health care providers, we need to make sure we’re taking care of truck drivers,” she said. “Drivers will be pushed beyond their limits.”

In recent years, trucks have been outfitted with devices that electronically log how many hours a trucker has driven. The devices are intended to promote safety and save lives.

But under the administration's waiver, drivers can turn the devices off during emergency runs, according to the motor carrier safety administration. Asked why, a spokesperson said, "By law, ELD data can only be used for hours-of-service enforcement."

The suspended safety rules come as the number of drivers of large trucks killed in single-vehicle accidents has increased over the years.

Between 2010 and 2017, the latest year data is available, the number of truck drivers killed in these accidents increased by about 47 percent, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

During the same time period, the total number of people killed in accidents involving large trucks also increased, as did the rate of trucks involved in fatal accidents, according to the data.

Many fatal accidents happen because of sleepy drivers. According to a 2014 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study, which looked at data from 1999 to 2013, about a fifth of fatal accidents involved drowsy drivers.

As a way to curb accidents caused by fatigue, the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended hours-of-service rules.

Asked how the motor carrier safety administration aimed to keep drivers safe during emergency runs, a spokesperson pointed to the emergency declaration but did not say anything specific. The spokesperson did not respond to a question asking if the administration anticipated more accidents because of the relaxed safety rules.

Language in the declaration says that, if drivers tell their employers they need "immediate rest," employers must provide "at least 10 consecutive hours off-duty."

Also, once an emergency run is completed, drivers must be given 10 hours off if they were transporting property or 8 hours off if transporting people, such as those in quarantine or medical professionals, according to the motor carrier safety administration

The emergency declaration also exempts companies on runs related to the outbreak from regulations related to maintenance, driver qualifications and employee safety. The declaration will end once the emergency is over or by April 13, whichever is sooner.