As a result of the unprecedented COVID-19 emergency declaration that waived certain regulations for motor carriers and truck drivers for well over two years, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is looking to amend regulations related to future emergency declarations. Though the COVID-19-related National Emergency and Public Health Emergency declarations remain in place at the federal level, FMCSA’s own COVID-related waiver, originally tied to the March 13, 2020, national presidential declaration, was extended and modified numerous times before it was allowed to expire on Oct. 15 this year.

Under current federal regulations, when a president, governor, or the FMCSA issues a declaration of an emergency, a 30-day exemption from parts 390-399 is automatically created for motor carriers and drivers providing direct assistance to state and local emergency relief efforts.

In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) set to publish in the Federal Register Thursday, Dec. 8, FMCSA is proposing to narrow the automatic applicability of emergency exemptions to the hours-of-service limits in parts 395.3 and 395.5 of the federal regulations.

Under the proposal, the automatic regulatory relief would apply for only five days, as opposed to 30 days, and would exempt CMV drivers only from the HOS regulations in parts 395.3 and 395.5, as opposed to all regulations in parts 390 through 399.

[Related: Owner-ops, groups: COVID hours waiver should open door for more HOS flexibility]

This would only apply to the existing automatic regulatory relief that takes effect upon a regional declaration of an emergency by a governor, a governor’s authorized representative, or FMCSA. Presidential declarations of emergency would continue to trigger a 30-day exemption from all FMCSRs in parts 390 through 399.

“FMCSA believes that most emergencies justify allowing carriers and drivers providing direct assistance in responding to the emergency relief from the normal hours of service limits to deliver critical supplies and services to the communities in need,” FMCSA said.

Other safety regulations, the agency noted, including driver qualification requirements, vehicle inspection and other operating requirements and more, “often have no direct bearing on the motor carrier’s ability to provide assistance to the emergency relief efforts.”

The agency added that the proposed change would clarify that drivers and carriers cannot overlook other safety requirements while providing direct emergency assistance.

The agency said it determined that many emergencies for which declarations are issued, specifically weather events, are actually over within five days and that “emergency relief efforts extending beyond that time are typically geared to rebuilding and not to the emergency response scenarios envisioned when this rule was first issued.” A state or local official who believes an extension of the HOS relief or broader regulatory relief is necessary would be required to request relief and/or an extension from FMCSA.

[Related: Study shows how carriers step up in crisis situations]

One exception to the change would be for when a governor declares an emergency due to a shortage of residential heating fuel. Automatic regulatory relief would still last 30 days and exempt any motor carrier or driver operating a CMV to provide residential heating fuel in the geographic area covered by the declaration from all regulations in parts 390 through 399.

The proposal also offers potential changes to the definition of emergency to clarify that emergency regulatory relief generally does not apply to economic conditions that are caused by market forces, including shortages of raw materials or supplies, labor strikes, driver shortages, inflation or fluctuations in freight shipment or brokerage rates, unless such conditions or events cause an immediate threat to human life and result in declaration of an emergency.

FMCSA added that the term emergency relief would be removed from the regulations, and the definition of direct assistance would be amended to incorporate essential parts of the former emergency relief definition. 

FMCSA will accept comments on its proposal for 60 days beginning Thursday, Dec. 8. Comments can be made at www.regulations.gov by searching Docket No. FMCSA-2022-0028.

[Related: The COVID-19 HOS waiver: Has ‘self-regulation’ equated to better safety?]