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Lax Trucking Regulations an Indirect Threat Posed by Coronavirus

Trucking Cargo

For a couple of weeks, it seemed that the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness might remain a problem outside the United States. That period, and that optimism, seem quaint now that the U.S. has more than 7,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and is sure to discover thousands more in the coming days as long-delayed test results begin to pour in. [1] As officials grapple with this public health emergency, they are making choices that may increase the risk of Nevada trucking accidents.

Nevada Gripped By Coronavirus

As of this writing, Nevada has 82 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including one death linked to the illness. [2]

This is functionally (and officially) a pandemic, a worldwide spread of infections that may become one of the most significant public health threats in modern history.­ As researchers scramble to develop a vaccine, or at least to find medicines that can staunch the effects of the virus, unprecedented efforts are underway to prevent the spread of the illness. Across the country people have been asked – and in some cases ordered, though it is unclear what penalties would be imposed [3] – to “shelter in place” for the next two to four weeks. For example, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak ordered the state’s K-12 schools and universities closed on March 16, and the next day he ordered “non-essential” businesses – including casinos – shuttered as well. [4]

Among the businesses considered “essential” are grocery stores and certain other retailers. One reason these retailers remain essential is that there was a rush to hoard supplies in the early days once it became clear that the coronavirus had reached the United States – and had likely been spreading, undetected, for weeks. Despite admonishments from health experts that the best things we can do to slow the spread of the virus are to practice good hygiene and avoid crowds, hundreds of Nevadans began building up stockpiles of toilet paper and bottled water. [5]

As a result, store shelves began to empty due to the sudden onset of manic buying. And the purchases initially targeted a few items such as hand sanitizer and bleach wipes. Next came hand soap, bleach solution, and the above-mentioned toilet paper and bottled water. Once reports surfaced of the hoarding of those items, still more people began buying up frozen meals and non-perishable foods. And amidst it all, the supply chain in northern Nevada was choked by a winter storm that snarled traffic over Interstate 80, a key shipping corridor that connects California to Reno, Sparks, Fernley, Winnemucca, Elko, and West Wendover as it moves east. As the highways clear, beleaguered truck drivers will be trying to make up for lost time amidst a crisis; incautious driving may lead to a spike in Reno-area trucking accidents.

Safety Rules for Truckers Relaxed

With the nation panic-buying supplies, breathing masks, and the like, the supply chain has been taxed. Add to that the impending global economic slowdown – set off by massive quarantines and work stoppages in China, the world’s manufacturing hub – and you get a situation where scarcity could become a real issue. To ease the burden on retailers and to keep store shelves relatively full – as noted above, one wave of panic-buying can set off another, leading to a “run” on supplies tantamount to the bank runs that plunged the global economy into the Great Depression some 90 years ago – regulators of trucking have begun to relax those rules.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA, a federal agency responsible for regulating interstate trucking) normally keeps a close watch on the nation’s truck drivers. Here is a short list of trucking regulations that normally apply:

On March 13 the Trump Administration declared a national emergency due to the coronavirus, and pursuant to that declaration the FMCSA announced relief from regulations on transportation of critical food, medical, and testing supplies and of key medical personnel and quarantined individuals. Despite these measures, which relaxed many of the key trucking regulations, drivers are still required to complete eight to ten hours of rest after completing their deliveries. [7] The FMCSA expanded the relaxed rules this week. [8] Just as the Reno-Sparks and Winnemucca-Elko regions are key points along the I-80 supply line, Las Vegas rests along the I-10 corridor that transports materials from the Port of Los Angeles to points east in the country’s interior. Both regions are at risk of Nevada trucking accidents if these regulatory loosenings result in reckless conduct.

State Impacts

The federal government is not the only entity that regulates trucking, nor is it the only one loosening rules. Texas caught its share of headlines this week when it suspended enforcement of its alcohol-related trucking regulations. But those stories were more in the vein of “clickbait” than actual news; the alcohol-related regulations were not those barring drivers from abusing alcohol or drinking and driving but rather state laws prohibiting beer distributors from making supply runs for groceries and dry goods. [9]

Nevada may be facing a perfect storm with regard to trucking accidents in light of the coronavirus. As noted above, Las Vegas is a waypoint along the I-10 corridor shipping supplies eastward. Truck drivers who once assiduously obeyed the HOS regulations – which limit how many hours a driver may work before taking a rest – will now feel freed to push the envelope to complete their deliveries. The result could be more trucking accident injuries along the lonely desert highways outside of Las Vegas. And in the north, the same phenomenon could combine with the notoriously unpredictable weather of northern Nevada in the spring. In the last 30 days the Reno area has seen summer-like temperatures and blizzards of high-moisture snow, both in rapid alteration. This makes for dangerous conditions that add to the risk of trucking accidents around Elko, Winnemucca, and West Wendover.

If there is a silver lining to this story, it is that the vast majority of Nevadans are doing their part to comply with the directive to minimize travel. As a result, the freeways that are normally choked with weekday Las Vegas traffic – and increasingly in Reno-Sparks, too – are now much less densely populated. Hopefully that offsets the otherwise increased risk of Nevada trucking accidents.

[1] https://www.npr.org/2020/03/18/817934531/the-latest-developments-in-the-federal-and-scientific-response-to-coronavirus

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html

[3] https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/2020/03/16/social-distancing-coronavirus-isolation-quarantine-pandemic-virus-infection-symptoms/5019940002

[4] https://thenevadaindependent.com/article/sisolak-calls-for-state-office-closures-limits-on-large-gatherings-to-slow-rapid-spread-of-coronavirus

[5] https://www.ktnv.com/13-investigates/stockpiling-supplies-hoarding-bottled-water-paper-products-will-not-prevent-coronavirus-spread

[6] https://www.justia.com/injury/motor-vehicle-accidents/truck-accidents/state-and-federal-regulations

[7] https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/newsroom/us-department-transportation-issues-national-emergency-declaration-commercial-vehicles

[8] https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/newsroom/us-department-transportation-expands-national-emergency-declaration-commercial-vehicles

[9] https://cdllife.com/2020/texas-waives-overweight-and-alcohol-trucking-regulations-for-covid-19

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