The trucking industry remembers the COVID-19 pandemic very well. From 2020 to 2022, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued nine emergency declarations, waiving specific sections of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) to facilitate emergency relief efforts by motor carriers. With each emergency declaration update, FMCSA adjusted the supplies deemed “essential.” FMCSA also adjusted the safety regulations waivers, though throughout the pandemic, motor carriers and their drivers found relief from hours-of-service (HOS) regulations when providing “direct assistance.”

FMCSA does not require a pandemic or national emergency to generate declarations waiving truck safety regulations. Hurricanes, floods, blizzards, forest fires, and other extreme weather events often lead to emergency declarations at the federal, state, and local levels. But the COVID-19 pandemic clearly caused FMCSA to consider standardizing emergency waivers. In its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) early this year, FMCSA proposed to automatically grant waivers of HOS regulations for motor carriers and drivers providing relief in emergencies. However, the agency said that the automatic waiver of other safety regulations – such as truck driver qualification or vehicle parts and accessories – is not truly related to emergency relief efforts. FMCSA also proposed to limit the exemption period of emergency declarations by a governor or by FMCSA itself to five days, retaining today’s 30-day exemption period only for declarations by the president.

Now, FMCSA has issued its Final Rule in Clarification to the Applicability of Emergency Exemptions and has made some changes from its earlier proposal:

  • Presidential declarations of emergency will continue to trigger automatic regulatory relief from all of FMCSR parts 390 through 399 for the period of assistance, or 30 days from the declaration, whichever is less.
  • Regional declarations by a governor or by FMCSA itself will only grant automatic relief from HOS regulations for motor carriers and drivers providing direct assistance. That HOS relief will be for a period of 14 days (rather than the five days proposed in the NPRM) or until emergency assistance is no longer needed, if shorter than 14 days. The final rule also notes that a section of federal law already allows governors a 30-day emergency for shortages of residential heating oil. That 30-day period can be extended twice, for 90 days total. FMCSA will not automatically waive other sections of the FMCSRs for regional emergencies, saying that the basics of truck safety regulation must remain in place. But FMCSA will consider requests for modifications of its waivers.
  • Local declarations of emergency are also limited to relief from HOS regulations. Local emergencies are already capped in law at five days. Similarly, a section of law already grants tow truck operators a 24-hour HOS exemption in declared local emergencies.

The final rule clarifies that the term emergency generally does not apply to economic conditions caused by market forces, such as shortages of raw materials, labor strikes or driver shortages, unless such conditions create an immediate threat to human life and result in a declaration of emergency. FMCSA said some regional emergencies were declared to facilitate seasonal shopping… those will no longer qualify as emergencies.

Finally, FMCSA plans to ask The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for permission to require some reporting by motor carriers operating under emergency waivers. FMCSA began that practice in the later COVID-19 emergency waivers. The public will have 30 days to comment once OMB approves the request.

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