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Changes to Trucking Regulations Due to COVID-19

3 Changes to Trucking Rules for COVID-19

Federal and state governments have made numerous changes to their rules for truckers to facilitate deliveries of goods to alleviate critical shortages. However, this could pose more dangers to drivers on the road, and it may not relieve trucking companies of the liability that they would face in the event of an accident. While the drivers are doing the best they can while operating under extreme stress, they are more prone to accidents, even though commercial trucking activity is operating at only 83% of its normal level due to the coronavirus.

1. CDL Waivers

The federal government has made it easier for drivers to have their CDL renewed. Ordinarily, they would need to take an exam to earn a new commercial driver's license. However, the government has recognized the difficulty of administering exams during this time when truckers are critically needed, and it is difficult to have someone in the cab of the truck administering the exam. The government has automatically extended all CDLs that expire on or after March 1, 2020. These licenses are extended right now through the end of June. Those who have expired commercial learners' permits do not need to take a test for the renewal of their permit. In addition, CDL examiners can now administer tests from outside the cab of the truck. They can even administer testing online or virtually. They do not need to be physically sitting next to the driver when giving the exam. However, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has urged states to supervise these exams as closely as possible, perhaps by having examiners follow the truck closely during the examination. It is the states that have the responsibility to conduct CDL tests. However, state agencies are struggling with a lack of employees right now as people stay home and some state employees are sickened. State offices are closed, and it is too risky to open up some of these offices right now. States will still be able to administer knowledge tests, and the federal government now allows third parties to give these tests and has waived certain training requirements for them.

2. Weight Limits Have Been Suspended

States have also given waivers or changed rules for trucks that are over the maximum allowable weight limits. This waiver extends to trucks that are transporting COVID-19 relief supplies. Each state has a different definition of what constitutes relief supplies. Heavier trucks present more of a danger for drivers on the road. There is more of a likelihood that auto drivers will suffer serious injury if they are involved in an accident with that truck. Pennsylvania has issued its own rules that have permitted trucks with higher weights on the road. In Pennsylvania, the state suspended the weight limits for certain trucks participating in hauling COVID-19 relief supplies. The definition in the state order includes trucks that are restocking food and fuel. This category encompasses many of the trucks that are on the road. Other categories of trucks will still need to comply with the relevant weight limits. These changes are a reflection of the fact that regulators must weigh the public interest against the need to regulate. Here, the government has determined that the need for COVID-19 supplies temporarily outweighs the safety needs of drivers on the road.

3. Rest Requirements Have Been Relaxed

The federal government has also temporarily changed its rules for how long truck drivers are permitted to drive without taking a break. Ordinarily, there are limits on shift times for drivers that are enforced by electronically monitoring the cab of the truck. Recognizing that truck drivers will need to scramble to meet tight delivery timelines, the federal government is now allowing drivers to stay behind the wheel for longer. The federal rules now exempt the driver from these rest requirements while they are engaged in hauling COVID-19 relief supplies. Like Pennsylvania, the federal government also has a broad interpretation of what are relief supplies. Note that the rules for rest still do apply to truck drivers once they are finished making their delivery. They cannot simply be sent back out on the road without adequate time to rest before their next shift. Tired truck drivers raise the risk of an accident. When the drivers are under pressure and working long hours, the level of safety for all drivers may decrease. If you have been injured by a truck driver, you may still have a legal cause of action notwithstanding the rule changes. An Allentown truck accident attorney may advise you that truck drivers are still not exempt from the common law of negligence notwithstanding the COVID-19 epidemic. However, you should not be under the impression that the relaxation of the rules has given trucking companies the ability to do whatever they want with regard to tired drivers. Trucking companies still cannot permit tired drivers to operate a truck. If the driver informs their employer that they are tired, they must be given 10 consecutive hours of rest before they have to return to service.

The Federal Rules Are for an Emergency

The predicate for the FMSCA changes to the rules has been the COVID-19 crisis. The president has the authority to waive certain rules during the declaration of a national emergency. The federal government has periodically extended the emergency that applies to the trucking industry. The most recent extension was until June 14, 2020. However, you can expect that these exemptions will continue to apply so long as we are dealing with COVID-19. These federal waivers specifically state that drivers are still obligated to follow all state laws regarding the operation of the vehicle, including speed limits. The federal government also specifically says that drivers cannot operate a vehicle while they are fatigued, even if hour limitations are temporarily waived.

The Rules Do Not Govern Negligence

Of course, if a truck driver does not follow a law or regulation, it is proof enough of their liability in many civil cases. However, the question arises whether truck drivers are exempt from a finding of negligence if they are doing what is allowed under the rules. Regardless of what the government is now allowing truck drivers to do, they still owe a duty of care to other drivers on the road. Even though their trucks are heavier and they may drive longer hours, they still must act as a reasonable truck driver would under the circumstances. This means that they still must exercise due care. Even with longer shifts, a truck driver may still not drive when they are tired, and their company should not allow them to do so. They could be held liable civilly if they fall asleep behind the wheel or have an accident when driving drowsy. If you have been injured in a truck accident on Pennsylvania roads, you will need the services of an Allentown truck accident attorney. Contact the law firm of Metzger & Kleiner today at (610) 435-7400 to set up your initial consultation if you're in Allentown or elsewhere in the Lehigh Valley.

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