As cities and states have raced to shut down businesses to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the roads have gone quieter. Normally gridlocked cities like Los Angeles and Chicago have seen much faster traffic speeds during so-called rush hour—53 percent and 70 percent, respectively—as residents hunker down and hope social distancing does its work.
But shelter-in-place orders are harder to carry out when your office is moving 65 mph, traveling hundreds of miles a day, and helping to move the emergency supplies that are keeping the country running during an unprecedented public health crisis. “We’re still moving America,” says Steve Fields, a Kansas City-based truck driver with YRC Freight.
“Covid-19 is causing the mother of all supply chain disruptions,” Peggy Dorf, an analyst with the freight marketplace DAT Solutions, wrote this week on the company’s blog. Emergency medical supplies like masks, ventilators, and soap need to be transported from manufacturers to medical centers, and the raw materials that help manufacturers build those things—paper, plastic, alcohol—need to get to the factory. Grocery shelves must be restocked, and quickly, while customers like schools no longer need their regular shipments. Americans everywhere cry out for more toilet paper.
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Data from DAT shows “spot rates”—that is, the cost to hire a last-minute truck on the open market—have jumped 6.1 percent since late February, and that rates for 63 of the country’s 100 most high volume truck routes have risen. Load-to-truck ratios, industry shorthand for the demand for trucks on the road, sharply rose above 2019 levels in mid-February. “This is not normal for March,” Dorf wrote. At some distribution centers, where drivers unload their trucks full of household goods and groceries, truckers have taken to Facebook to complain of long lines and traffic.
Last week, in response to the crisis, the Department of Transportation suspended some regulations requiring drivers to take off-road breaks while making deliveries. Usually, drivers are only permitted to work 14 hour days, and can spend only 11 of those actually driving. But those “hours of service” regulations no longer apply to drivers transporting full loads of emergency supplies, like medical equipment related to Covid-19, masks and gloves, groceries, fuel, and equipment for building temporary housing or quarantine spaces. Drivers still have to take a minimum 10-hour break after they’ve dropped off their emergency loads, and to stop driving if they feel drowsy at any point.
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One point of contention is that essential feature of the truckers’ life: the truck stop. Even as public health officials close down restaurants and bars for fear of spreading the novel coronavirus, truckers are hoping states make an exception for their travel centers. In Pennsylvania, a Tuesday shutdown of public interstate and turnpike stops led to a revolt from two national lobbying groups, the American Trucking Association and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. The groups say truckers need those places to sleep, because parking lots are often the safest places for drivers to pull over for some shuteye. On Thursday, the Pennsylvania DOT said it would reopen the parking lots and bathrooms in 13 of the 30 state-operated stops.
Still, coronavirus has changed life for drivers. TA-Petro, one of the nation’s largest travel center operators, has closed its driver lounges and fitness centers, and, to the disappointment of many, shut down its buffets and soup and salad bars in states where public officials have closed restaurants. Drivers can still pick up take-out food and take showers at the company’s facilities. A competitor, the Pilot Company, has had to close its gaming rooms in Illinois, Louisiana, and Nevada. Some truckers use refillable mugs at truck stops. Don’t do that anymore, the companies say. (You’ll still qualify for the refillable mug discount.)
Jon Pertchik, TA-Petro’s CEO, says the company’s diesel sales by volume are up by “high single digits” compared with last year, and that that gasoline sales are down. This is consistent, he says, with the idea that trucks have taken to the road to move supplies, and that “people—soccer moms and soccer dads—are hunkering down at home.”
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Dan Horvath, usually the American Trucking Association’s vice president of safety policy but now the organization’s Covid-19 czar, says the group is on the lookout for what he calls “onerous” restrictions on drivers—for example, demanding to take a driver’s temperature before they drop off a load at a facility, or quizzing them on where they have traveled in the last few days, or refusing to allow drivers to use bathrooms. “Treat drivers like human beings,” Horvath says.
A recent survey of carriers by the transportation logistics software company Transplace found that some companies were stepping up their truck cleaning, providing hand sanitizer to drivers, and asking drivers to stay in their cabs whenever they could.
Truck drivers who spoke to WIRED this week said they weren’t yet worried about getting sick. “I’m alert,” says Fields, the Kansas City truck driver, who operates a different vehicle every day. “I haven’t really changed a lot of my daily routine. I wash my hands a lot anyway, and I wipe down every truck. I learned a long time ago that sickness goes around so easily when you’re working with other people.”
Updated, 3-20-2020, 12:10pm ET: This article has been updated to include information about sales of diesel and gasoline.
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