Emergencies and natural disasters, from hurricanes to wildfires, can strike at any time. Knowing when your fleet may be exempt from certain DOT rules is important during these times.   -  Photo: Pixabay

Emergencies and natural disasters, from hurricanes to wildfires, can strike at any time. Knowing when your fleet may be exempt from certain DOT rules is important during these times. 

Photo: Pixabay

After a natural disaster or other emergencies, it’s human nature to want to help. The Department of Transportation (DOT) may even offer you a break from its safety regulations for doing so. However, misinterpreting how that exemption applies could land you in hot water.   

Before assuming you’re exempt from the DOT rules under §390.23, you need to make sure a government entity has declared an emergency, DOT safety rules have been waived, and you are providing aid that qualifies as “direct assistance.”

What is an Emergency?

An emergency is an event so serious it threatens human life or public welfare by interrupting the delivery of essential services or supplies. Examples of essential services include electricity, medical care, sewer, water, and telecommunications, while essential supplies can encompass food, fuel, and medical supplies. 

To qualify under §391.23, the dire situation must result in:

  1. A state or federal government-declared emergency; and
  2. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) offering an exemption for those providing direct assistance.

What Qualifies as Direct Assistance?

When an emergency is declared, motor carriers and their drivers may have difficulty in determining whether a shipment or service qualifies as relief efforts. Operating and delivering in an affected region is not necessarily providing direct assistance. 

Going back to the disruptions mentioned in the definition of emergency, direct assistance includes transportation and other relief services related to the immediate restoration of essential services or supplies.

Direct assistance does not include routine commercial deliveries. In addition, mixed loads with a nominal quantity of qualifying emergency relief materials do not offer regulatory relief for the transporter. 

Which Regulations No Longer Apply?

It is vital to seek out and review the declaration itself since it might contain important restrictions, including which specific regulations are temporarily waived. In most cases, drivers and motor carriers operating under a federal exemption must continue to comply with some of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs). 

Even in the most severe cases, exemptions usually require compliance with at least the commercial driver’s license regulations, drug and alcohol testing, financial responsibility (insurance), hazardous materials rules, and size and weight requirements. 

Only a governor’s emergency declaration can address state requirements (e.g., size and weights, registration, fleet taxes). 

Motor carriers and drivers currently under an out-of-service order are not eligible to use an exemption.

When Does Assistance End?

Direct assistance ends when a driver or commercial motor vehicle (CMV):

  1. Is used in interstate commerce to transport cargo or provide services not in support of emergency relief efforts, or 
  2. When the motor carrier dispatches a driver or CMV to another location to begin operations in commerce.

Drivers who provide disaster assistance may remain exempt while traveling back to their normal work location with an empty CMV.

Returning to Normal

Once an exemption no longer applies, drivers of property-carrying vehicles must take at least 10 consecutive hours off duty upon return to their normal working location. If a driver needs rest before returning to the work-reporting location, the driver must be allowed to take at least 10 hours off. 

Any regulatory obligations that lapsed during the exemption, such as a driver’s annual motor vehicle record or a vehicle’s annual inspection, must be brought up to date before returning the driver and vehicle to service. It is also suggested carriers keep a copy of the declaration and any documents (e.g., shipping papers) that prove the company was providing direct assistance. You will need to demonstrate you qualified for the exemption in the event of an audit. 

About the Author: Kathy Close is a transportation editor at J.J. Keller & Associates, Inc. Her areas of expertise include transportation security, DOT drug and alcohol testing, and driver qualification. 

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