The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration quietly let lapse a national hours-of-service exemption in place for over two years, a move supported by both major trucking companies and truck safety advocates.
The exemption, first issued by FMCSA in March 2020 following the national emergency declared by President Trump in response to COVID-19, was extended and/or modified over 10 times. It gave truck drivers and carriers more flexibility to deliver shipments of livestock, medical supplies, vaccines, groceries and diesel fuel by waiving hours of service restrictions.
But the most recent extension, which was issued in September and expired on Saturday, has not been renewed.
“We evaluated the data coming back on who was using it, as well as the evaluation of the comments we received [on the last extension],” FMCSA Administrator Robin Hutcheson told FreightWaves on Monday. “We also looked at where we are with COVID, and the guidance that has been coming out on that. All was behind the decision to let it expire.”
The change countered a decision on Friday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which renewed its determination that a public health emergency still exists.
But for FMCSA, Hutcheson said, “the tools we have [to provide regulatory relief] are limited to the authorities that we have, and based on the feedback we received we feel like we made the right call.”
FMCSA noted in its September extension that certain cargo being hauled under the exemption had been steadily declining. In addition, ending the exemption was supported by both the American Trucking Associations and the Truck Safety Coalition – two influential groups that rarely agree on issues that come before the agency.
“While ATA appreciated the emergency declaration relief throughout the early stages of the pandemic, most ATA members no longer feel continued relief is necessary,” the group stated in response to FMCSA’s request for comments on the most recent extension. “ATA members continue to voice concerns that continuing regulatory relief may be used to circumvent the hours-of-service regulations or foster abuse of the regulations.”
In asking FMCSA to deny another extension, the Truck Safety Coalition pointed to a 13% increase in deaths occurring from truck crashes between 2020 and 2021. “FMCSA must consider the deplorable state of roadway safety when considering continued regulatory relief, specifically, the unabated rise in truck crash fatalities,” the coalition stated.
Livestock and animal feed haulers, on the other hand, which have remained exempted from the hour of service rules throughout the national emergency, were some of the biggest supporters of continuing the exemption.
“Agricultural shippers have been experiencing significant rail service challenges and emergency truck freight has been indispensable to helping meet demand,” Michael Seyfert, president and CEO of the National Grain and Feed Association, told FMCSA.
“Even though truck transportation capacity is tight, agricultural shippers have been forced to find extra truck freight to help fill the void where rail is unavailable or unreliable. While the trucking industry is doing what it can to help with the rail service challenges, there is a limited amount of trucking capacity,” Seyfert added.
Data measuring truck capacity and spot prices does not match up with NGFA’s assessment of the market, however, as truckload tender rejections – a barometer for capacity – recently hit a new low.
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