With relaxed rules, truckers find themselves kings of the road as coronavirus erases traffic

©The Sacramento Bee

Rob Nikolewski/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In this upside-down coronavirus world, commercial truck drivers suddenly find themselves kings of the road.

The federal government has given haulers of key goods a green light by dropping some long-standing restrictions on work hours. And truckers report their job, in a bizarre way, is easier than ever: Congestion on California’s notorious freeways has disappeared because so many commuters are at home under state and local orders to shelter in place.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says truckers of essential goods such as healthcare supplies and food supplies no longer are prohibited from working more than 70 hours in an eight-day period. Nor must they take a 30-minute break every eight hours.

Those new dictates were put in place as of last week, but federal officials did add a protection: “If the driver informs the motor carrier that he or she needs immediate rest, the driver must be permitted at least 10 consecutive hours off duty before the driver is required to return to the motor carrier’s terminal or the driver’s normal reporting location.”

But truckers have been hitting bumps in the road as well. Amid rampant concerns about the spread of COVID-19, some complain they’re facing long hauls with few available bathrooms, limited access to food, and a lack of places to park when tired as some states close rest areas.

Some drivers are experiencing long delays in loading and unloading; others are arriving at their destinations only to find the business shuttered and nowhere to unload their freight.

And, with large parts of the economy shut down, and consumers spending less, it’s unclear how much the trucking industry will need the new regulatory breathing room, or how many truckers may even be employed in the coming weeks.

Consumer supermarket food runs, for instance, spiked last week immediately after government officials sent people home from work and called on them to hunker down. Ronald Fong, president of the California Grocers Association, felt compelled to publicly ask consumers to back off, saying truckers were tripling their trips to supermarkets but still couldn’t keep shelves stocked.

Now, with many home pantries full, store shelves are filling again, and some truckers are seeing their deliveries of rice and other commodities stacking up at distribution centers, a West Sacramento trucking company president reports.

In one way, truckers report their job is immensely easier — and more pleasant. Their nemesis, commute congestion, has disappeared.

Robert Schott, independent owner-operator for Rail Delivery Service in Fontana, reports that Southern California’s notorious freeways are so free of traffic that the drive between Fontana and Carson now takes half the time as normal.

Rather than pushing the limit on hours, Schott says he can get a full night’s sleep and make his deliveries in time to be home at a decent hour. “I can do full work days in eight hours that normally took 12 hours,” he said.

“There is no traffic. It’s amazing. I wish it was always like this.”

Richard Coyle, head of Devine Intermodal trucking in West Sacramento, said Interstate 80 between Sacramento and the Port of Oakland is so uncrowded that his company doesn’t need to take advantage of the deregulated hours of service. “Normally traffic is terrible, but transit time between the Central Valley and the port now is so quick, it is working out fine,” he said.

Shawn Yadon, head of the California Trucking Association, said his group nevertheless is grateful the federal and state governments have recognized the importance of swift freight shipments.

The industry transports about 96% of commercial goods consumed in the Sacramento region, according to a 2015 Caltrans analysis.

Yadon said his group is asking truckers who do make longer runs to use judgment on when to take a rest, for road safety, but also to maintain physical health at a time when there are fewer places to stop, rest, eat and even go to the restroom.

“They need to make sure they get the rest they need. Rest stops are important. Health and safety are big issues, and food access is a big issue now.”

Yadon lauded the McDonald’s restaurant chain that just launched a smart phone app for truckers to use to call in a food order ahead of time. Trucks can’t fit in the drive-through line. Instead, truckers can park near a McDonald’s, and go to a spot next to but outside of the restaurant to pick up the food they pre-ordered.

“I hope to see other (chains) do that,” Yadon said.

Trucking officials are also asking companies to allow truckers to use the bathrooms at sites where they are loading or unloading their freight. Independent trucking officials have called on President Donald Trump to intervene, saying their truckers are being denied access to washrooms too often.

“This is unconscionable and those enforcing the policy lack basic decency,” Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, wrote to Trump. “As the most transient community in America, truckers must have the capacity to wash their hands after handling freight, paperwork and business equipment to help contain the spread of the virus.”

Fearing that drivers might find usual truck-stop doors shut to them, federal transportation officials last week sent an urgent letter to the national truck stop association telling them the government expects them to keep truck stops open 24 hours a day, even as they heed federal coronavirus safety guidelines.

But there are other signs of civic decency. Casinos in Las Vegas and Reno have been donating gloves to truckers to use when handling shipments.

The new deregulation has created some confusion. Which goods are covered by the relaxed rules, and which aren’t?

Truckers bringing medical supplies to hospitals are clearly exempt from a long list of restrictions, as are food deliveries. So are truckers carrying cattle. Livestock are a “precursor” to food, and the government is keeping the food production chain, from farm to market, open. But some drivers carry mixed loads with a variety of types of goods in them.

In a letter to the Trump administration this week, independent truckers are calling on the government for full deregulation of all shipments, not just commodities deemed essential, to eliminate confusion.

Despite the rush, there are signs the industry is slowing down. American Trucking Association economist Bob Costello said the industry will face a deeper dip this spring as mandatory shutdowns of many businesses cause the economy to contract.

Coyle, whose West Sacramento trucking company delivers food but also electronics, apparel and furniture, has already had to reduce staffing. “People aren’t buying those things right now,” he said. “We are going to see a huge drop-off in consumer goods.”

Trucker Schott, who is delivering paper products and some food, said he’s still busy and appreciative. He’s always known the importance of trucking in the economy’s supply chain, even if some car drivers complain about sharing the road with big trucks.

“I always knew what I was doing counted,” Schott said. “But, sure, it is nice to be recognized.”

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©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)