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The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)issued a national emergency declaration to provide hours-of-service regulatory relief to commercial vehicle drivers transporting emergency relief in response to the nationwide coronavirus, known as COVID-19, outbreak.

 This declaration is the first time FMCSA has issued nation-wide relief and follows President Trump issuing of a national emergency declaration in response to the virus.

“Because of the decisive leadership of President Trump and Secretary Chao, this declaration will help America’s commercial drivers get these critical goods to impacted areas faster and more efficiently,” said FMCSA acting administrator Jim Mullen. “FMCSA is continuing to closely monitor the coronavirus outbreak and stands ready to use its authority to protect the health and safety of the American people.”

FMCSA’s declaration provides for regulatory relief for commercial motor vehicle operations providing direct assistance supporting emergency relief efforts intended to meet immediate needs for:

  • Medical supplies and equipment related to the testing, diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19
  • Supplies and equipment, including masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, soap and disinfectants, necessary for health care worker, patient and community safety, sanitation, and prevention of COVID-19 spread in communities
  • Food for emergency restocking of stores
  • Equipment, supplies and persons necessary for establishment and management of temporary housing and quarantine facilities related to COVID-19
  • Persons designated by federal, state or local authorities for transport for medical, isolation or quarantine purposes
  • Personnel to provide medical or other emergency services

To ensure continued safety on the nation’s roadways, the emergency declaration stipulates that once a driver has completed his or her delivery, the driver must receive a minimum of 10 hours off duty if transporting property, and eight hours if transporting passengers.

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Potential changes to the hours-of-service rules for commercial drivers remain under review, a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration official said.

Speaking Feb. 17 at the Omnitracs Outook user conference in Las Vegas, FMCSA’s acting associate administrator for enforcement Joe DeLorenzo called the public comments filed with the agency last year “full and helpful.” He declined to offer any specific timetable other than stating the HOS rule is among the “top priorities” for acting administrator Jim Mullen.

DeLorenzo also noted the public will be aware when a final rule is passed to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review. Last August, FMCSA proposed five key changes to the HOS rules, including tweaks to the 30-minute rest break and allowing drivers to have more flexibility in splitting the 10-hour required off-duty time.

DeLorenzo said he believes the agency is on the way to giving commercial drivers some additional flexibility, but called HOS a complicated issue and that in the end everyone could still be “a little unhappy.” He added that could be a signal the agency got rule changes right.

DeLorenzo also offered an upbeat assessment of the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate, noting that there were more 100,000 data transfers during January. Overall, HOS violations are going down and law enforcement officers are working to catch any new methods drivers could use to try to falsify electronic records.

DeLorenzo suggested most of 2020 will still be about everyone adjusting to full-time use of ELDs - and not older generation automatic onboard recording devices. That includes being prepared for any instances when the device is not functioning as expected. He recommended keeping detailed notes in the event something strange happens to avoid confusion should there be a roadside inspection.

Kerri Wirachowsky, director of roadside inspection programs with the Commercial Vehicle Safety Administration, spoke of the ongoing need for drivers to receive training on the devices. During inspections, time can be saved when drivers understand how to transfer data and are properly logging in and out during the day.

Confusion over whether certain drivers are actually exempted from aspects of the HOS rules is an area of concern for law enforcement as FMCSA considers changes, she added.

While Canadian-based fleets operating in the United States must use an electronic log to track hours, fleets operating only in Canada have until June 2021, when that nation’s ELD mandate is implemented.

Mike Millian, president of the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada, noted that country will require ELD makers to have the devices certified by third parties, a step not required in the United States. Millian called it “the right way to do it,” but pointed out it will be several more months before any of the those third parties are in place, condensing the total time available for certification.

During the panel discussion, FMCSA's DeLorenzo also shared his personal thoughts on both the recently implemented drug and alcohol clearinghouse of commercial drivers, as well as the agency’s decision to boost the random testing rate back to 50% from 25%.

He said while these individual agency actions could put a strain on the overall driver pool, they will improve safety. For example, he said one failed test was a school bus driver taking a “return-to-duty” drug test.

On the increased random test requirement, DeLorenzo said he was not surprised the total number of positives rose above 1%, citing the expansion of marijuana legalization to more states and the addition of synthetic opioids to the Department of Transportation’s testing protocol.

Marijuana is legal across all of Canada and Millian said it is important a test for impairment is developed, beyond testing for the presence of the drug. “A failed test [for marijuana] doesn’t mean impairment,” he said.

Millian added there is no currently no legal requirement in Canada to test commercial drivers - something his group is actively working to change.

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