In an unprecedented move, the Trump administration suspended an 82-year-old road safety law for some truck drivers, showing how much coronavirus is pressuring retailers and hospitals to maintain cleaning and medical supplies

David McNew/Getty Images

  • The hours-of-service laws, which mandate how many hours a truck driver may work and have been in place for truck drivers since 1938, are suspended at a federal level for the first time in history.

  • As of Friday evening, truck drivers who are moving medical supplies and consumer goods like masks and hand sanitizer do not have to follow HOS.

  • It's common on a local or state level to lift these safety regulations amid natural disasters, like floods or hurricanes, that require stores and hospitals to stay stocked with necessary goods.

  • Truck drivers move 70% of the nation's goods by weight. They're responsible for replenishing stores and hospitals with necessary items.

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The federal administration that oversees regulations for America's six million professional drivers has temporarily suspended a trucking safety law that's been in place since 1938.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said Friday evening that truck drivers who are moving goods "in support of emergency relief efforts related to the COVID-19 outbreaks" will temporarily not have to follow the hours-of-service laws, which mandate how many hours a truck driver may work.

This is the first time since 1938, when the rule was developed, that it's been suspended on a national level. It's common for states and local governments to lift the rule amid natural disasters, when consumers "panic buy" household goods and hospitals need medical supplies.

Truck Driver
Some truck drivers won't have to follow the much-hated safety laws.

"Waivers of this type are a common response by FMCSA to natural disasters and crises because trucks delivering food, fuel and medicine are a critical part of the response," America Trucking Associations spokesperson Sean McNally said in a statement to Business Insider. "This waiver will help keep loads of medicine, supplies and food moving as the country manages this current pandemic."

Read more: Grocery stores would run out of food in just 3 days if long-haul truckers stopped working

Around 70% of the nation's goods by weight is moved by a truck — so ensuring that they can get to your local grocery store or hospital ramps up in times of crisis. "Everything from the fuel you put in your vehicle to consumables in your home all get put in play because of a truck driver," Tampa-based truck driver Dennis Felix-Shannon told Business Insider.

truck driver
Truck drivers are responsible for replenishing stores and hospitals with necessary items.

David Goldman/AP

In its current edition, HOS requires truck drivers to drive only 11 hours within a 14-hour work period. They must then log 10 hours of "off-duty" time. The safety law, which is aimed at eliminating exhausted truck drivers from the nation's highways so they do not endanger others, is disliked by many drivers. Some say the strict regulations actually disrupts their sleep schedule and makes them more likely to drive tired.

According to the FMCSA's Friday evening emergency declaration, here are the types of loads that are exempt from HOS laws:

  1. Medical supplies and equipment related to the testing, diagnosis, and treatment of COVID-19

  2. Supplies and equipment necessary for community safety, sanitation, and prevention of community transmission of COVID-19 such as masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, soap, and disinfectants

  3. Food for emergency restocking of stores

  4. Equipment, supplies, and persons necessary to establish and manage temporary housing, quarantine, and isolation facilities related to COVID-19

  5. Persons designated by Federal, State or local authorities for medical, isolation, or quarantine purposes

  6. Persons necessary to provide other medical or emergency services, the supply of which may be affected by the COVID-19 response

The unprecedented move shows how panic buying has become a nationwide phenomenon

The coronavirus outbreak, which was ruled by the World Health Organization this week as a global pandemic, has seen "panic buying" envelop the nation.

Across the country, US sales of hand sanitizer, for example, jumped by 228% during the four weeks ending on March 7, compared to the same period last year, according to the most-recently available dataset from retail sales tracker Nielsen.

During January and February, Adobe Analytics, which tracks 80 top online retailers in the US, said sales of cold, cough, and flu products popped 198%, toilet paper grew 186%, canned foods jumped 69%, and "virus protection" items like gloves and masks jumped 817%.

Recent studies show just how damaging coronavirus can be. About 0.1% of people who get the seasonal flu die, but the coronavirus' death rate is now at about 3.4%. Even those who recover from coronavirus may have 20% to 30% less lung capacity, causing survivors to gasp for breath while walking, doctors in Hong Kong have found.

flu vs south korea covid death rates
flu vs south korea covid death rates

Business Insider/Andy Kiersz, data from CDC and KCDC

But, as any truck driver will tell you, everything from pharmaceuticals to hand sanitizer to, of course, precious toilet paper is moved by a truck before it arrives at your doorstep, local big box store, or hospital. "Without trucking, we would be naked, starving, and homeless," truck driver Mike Robbins previously told Business Insider.

So, monitoring where trucking volumes are peaking or tanking is a good indicator of how panic-buying is setting in, according Aaron Terrazas, the director of economic research at tech-enabled trucking brokerage Convoy.

truck driver
Truck drivers move 70% of America's goods by weight.

AP Photo/John Froschauer

In the first 10 days of March, inbound volumes to Seattle increased by 12 to 15 times compared to the first 10 days of the previous month, Terrazas said. Markets in Los Angeles and New York City are starting to approach that multiplier, while inland markets like Chicago didn't have that jump in early March.

Photos shared on social media shows that truck drivers are getting slammed with orders, like this dispatch reportedly out of a Proctor and Gamble warehouse in Pennsylvania:

While such a pressure to empty stores of consumer goods is common during weather-related disasters, hurricanes don't hit the whole country. And there's a fair estimate on when a hurricane will stop.

Read more: The US is struggling to test more people for the coronavirus. Now it's facing a shortage of the materials used to run those tests.

Panic buying gives customers a modicum of control as coronavirus takes over the nation with seemingly endless unknowns. "It's about 'taking back control' in a world where you feel out of control," Paul Marsden, a consumer psychologist at the University of the Arts London, told CNBC this week. "More generally, panic buying can be understood as playing to our three fundamental psychology needs."

Are you a truck driver? Has coronavirus changed your daily work? What do you think of the HOS suspension? Email

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