Relaxed rules during COVID-19 pandemic pose risk for long-haul truckers

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KGO) -- The coronavirus pandemic is having a big impact on long-haul truckers who are so important to filling those empty store shelves. The drivers are taking steps to stay healthy, while the Trump administration has suspended rules on how long they can drive each day.

Business is humming at the 49er Travel Plaza in Sacramento. More than 200 big rigs shut down for the night; drivers getting some sleep before heading out again. They have had to make changes because of the coronavirus pandemic.

We spoke with the truck stop's owner, Tristen Griffith.

"It has been tough," Griffith, told the I-Team. "These drivers are scared and we're doing our best to support them. They are critical in the pipeline of the distribution to our stores and our hospitals."

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To prevent the spread of the virus, the truck stop is helping the operators keep a social distance - shutting down the TV viewing area, with its massage chairs. They're also giving the showers more frequent deep cleans, wiping down the pumps and door knobs frequently. And they have closed the restaurant for sit-down meals; everything is carryout.

An irony - truckers who drive loads with thousands of pounds of food now have difficulty finding food for themselves, on their long journeys.

"There's no amenities on the road, everything is closed," said long haul trucker Doug Westlake. "Being in a truck, the only thing right now at fast food outlets is drive through. When you're 78-feet long, the drive through is no longer an option."
But, perhaps the biggest change of all - just last week, the Trump administration suspended rules on how many hours the truckers can drive, if they're transporting critical supplies such as medical equipment, food, hand sanitizer, soap and disinfectants.

Canadian trucker James Staunton told the I-Team, "I'm sure that drivers are going to take a great deal of advantage of it."

Staunton is hauling food with his rescue named Jackson. He says President Trump has relaxed many restrictions on the industry.

"As far as keeping records, he's forgone that right now until this crisis is over," he said.

Some of the truckers told the ABC7 News I-Team they won't say this on camera, but they are concerned that the loosening of the rules could make some drivers push the limits of safety.

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Trucker Robert Rivera told us, "It gives me that extra push, that extra gumption to get to where I need to go. So the roads are a lot more clear."

He says he'll stay safe as he takes a load of food to Iowa.

Today, the I-Team interviewed Steve Burks, an economist from University of Minnesota Morris who spent ten years driving big rigs. He says relaxing the rules could lead to accidents.

"If you're relieved of all the hour of service requirements, you could end up becoming more fatigued than is healthy. That's a real concern," he said.

Burks tells me coronavirus is a concern for the three-to-four hundred thousand long distance truckers, given their profile.

"Who is at higher risk?" asked Burks. "People who are older, people with underlying medical conditions, maybe overweight, maybe people with diabetes. Well, guess what? Long distance, over the road truck drivers tend to be a population with higher incidence of those things."

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