Making sense of FMCSA’s expanding emergency response

Responding to the unprecedented events of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued a 50-state emergency declaration that granted motor carriers and drivers directly assisting in relief efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic temporary relief from Parts 390 through 399 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR).

The FMCSA released its emergency declaration on March 13 and expanded it on March 18 and again on Wednesday, April 8. With the originally scheduled April 12 expiration date quickly approaching, the administration announced that the waiver will now run through May 15, or until the presidentially declared COVID-19 national emergency is revoked.

The April 8 extension declared, among other things, that drivers must continue to comply with state laws and regulations including traffic violations and speeding. Drivers are also prohibited from operating a vehicle while impaired or fatigued.

John Seidl, vice president of risk services at Reliance Partners, urges the industry to broaden its focus to all parts of the FMCSA’s emergency response instead of just narrowing in on the hours of service (HOS) aspect of it.

“Everyone keeps calling it an ‘hours of service waiver;’ it’s more than that,” Seidl said. “It’s emergency relief of Parts 390 through 399 of the FMCSRs.”

Seidl highlighted some of FMCSA’s most frequently asked questions, from Part 1 and Part 2 of its FAQs, regarding what truckloads are covered under its emergency response. Some of its clarifications have actually stirred confusion among drivers.

“Five days after issuing its declaration, FMCSA expanded it because the first declaration was too vague,” Seidl said. “The government is in a reactionary mode like everyone else. They’re trying to do their best to communicate something that’s unprecedented.”

Seidl noted the declaration’s initial statement regarding the transport of food products as one that left drivers scratching their heads. He noted that it only vaguely granted relief to drivers delivering food for the emergency restocking of stores.

This caused confusion as many truckers wondered if food transferred between manufacturers and distributors were deemed eligible for relief or if it only applied to shipments terminating at grocery stores. Seidl stated that the expanded declaration revised its ruling to cover all food shipments at any point in the supply chain.

Seidl also warns drivers to diligently review the expanded declaration’s definition of precursor raw materials. It states that regulatory relief will be provided for drivers hauling immediate precursor raw materials such as paper, plastics or alcohol that are required to be used for the manufacture of items such as medical supplies and equipment, as well as food, paper products, disinfectants and other grocery items.

According to Seidl, drivers shouldn’t assume that all raw materials classify as essential items. 

For example, he explained that transporting rolls of paper to a manufacturer producing toilet paper or packaging for essential items qualify as precursor raw materials, but that truckloads of paper used for the production of newspapers and magazines do not.

The same can be said for plastic products, which he detailed should only include plastics used to make water bottles, disinfectant products, food packaging, etc.

“Trucking companies should do their best to document and ascertain any raw material regarding where it is going and what it will be used for,” Seidl said. “There should be no assumption that a raw material will be used in the production of an essential item.”

Seidl recommends that motor carriers request distributors and manufacturers to provide documentation clarifying that their shipments support the production of essential items. According to Seidl, an email should be enough for documentation. 

FMCSA declared that feed, fertilizer and livestock are covered under the declaration as precursors to essential items; however, pet food is off the table. Wood pulp is covered but only if it is being used as a precursor in making essential items.

Some of the declaration’s rules are still a bit hazy. Seidl noted one of the FAQs which addresses whether or not truckloads carrying supplies for emergency relief mixed with unrelated materials are covered under the declaration. 

Although generally covered, the expanded declaration states that mixed loads with only a nominal quantity of qualifying emergency relief added to obtain the benefits of this emergency declaration are not covered. 

Seidl suggests this ruling is subjective and that ‘nominal quantities’ are not defined anywhere in the FMCSR.

In addition to the emergency declarations, Seidl urges truck drivers to review FMCSA’s other COVID-19 information and resources as updates continue to be made.

The FMCSA has since released a three-month waiver for CDLs (commercial driver’s licenses) and COVID-19 drug & alcohol testing guidance, which he noted are not mentioned in the emergency declarations.

FMCSA granted this waiver to drivers with CDLs and medical cards that have or will expire after March 1 relief from getting them renewed through June 30, as reported earlier by FreightWaves

“What we’ve got from regulatory relief goes far beyond the emergency declaration of Parts 390-399,” Seidl said. “It includes CDLs and drug testing but you won’t find that in the declaration.”

Seidl also recommends drivers research the FMCSA’s state emergency declarations, which address what each state is doing above and beyond federal regulations.

The administration has also provided other resources such as guidance on cross-border transportation, information regarding local shelter in place and restrictions on movement, a State Drivers Licensing Agencies (SDLAs) FAQ page, among other resources.

As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the American freight industry, Siedl suggests FMCSA will continue to revise its rulings as market conditions change.

“These regulations are ever-evolving,” Seidl said. “That’s why this website is so important to browse routinely.”

For the latest news and information regarding the FMCSA’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, visit