The COVID-19 crisis has placed enormous pressure on the trucking industry and members of the trucking community who are tasked with keeping the U.S. supply chain moving in the face of unprecedented challenges — and the arrival of cold and flu season amid a worsening global pandemic could spell trouble for truckers from both a safety standpoint and a legal standpoint.
In the U.S., cold season typically lasts from late August through April, while the flu typically peaks between December and February. This year, however, the worsening COVID-19 crisis combined with cold and flu season dramatically increases the chances that you might be asked to operate a CMV while you’re sick.
It’s well known that driving while you’re fatigued is dangerous and could come with serious legal ramifications. But many truck drivers aren’t as aware of the fact that driving while you are under the weather could also have disastrous consequences.
Many truckers who are under tight deadlines and pressure from their employers will attempt to drive while they’re sick. After all, most drivers don’t get paid if the wheels aren’t turning, and many trucking companies do not have sick leave policies in place. Some drivers develop an illness after they’ve already begun a cross-country run and find themselves with little choice but to push through it. Drivers are also pressured to keep driving by the knowledge that they’re essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic, many of whom are delivering essential supplies like food, medicine, and paper products to keep grocery stores stocked and hospitals supplied.
But the fact remains that when you get behind the wheel when you’re sick, your driving ability is compromised — one study even found that driving with a common cold is equivalent to throwing back four double whiskeys when it comes to impairment. The study found that cold sufferers had slower reaction times, operated more erratically, and braked suddenly more often than healthy drivers. Illness not only impacts brain function but can also cause watery eyes, sneezing, or coughing that can reduce your ability to pay attention to the road.
Not only is driving while sick dangerous, it is also not permitted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) when it is likely to interfere with a person’s ability to drive a CMV safely.
Section § 392.3 of the Code of Federal Regulations states:
No driver shall operate a commercial motor vehicle, and a motor carrier shall not require or permit a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle, while the driver’s ability or alertness is so impaired, or so likely to become impaired, through fatigue, illness, or any other cause, as to make it unsafe for him/her to begin or continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle. However, in a case of grave emergency where the hazard to occupants of the commercial motor vehicle or other users of the highway would be increased by compliance with this section, the driver may continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle to the nearest place at which that hazard is removed.
This reading of the regulations indicates that a driver has not only the right but the duty to refuse to drive if he or she is significantly ill.
Drivers can be taken out of service by law enforcement for driving while ill. Checking for driver illness is even part of the inspection process — during this year’s Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) International Roadcheck blitz, officers made a point to “check drivers for seat belt usage, illness, fatigue, and apparent alcohol or drug possession or impairment.”
Drivers who refuse to violate FMCSA regulations — like the regulation forbidding ill or fatigued driving — are offered protection under some circumstances under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, which states “that no person shall discharge, discipline, or in any manner discriminate against an employee with respect to the employee’s compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment for refusing to operate a vehicle when such operation constitutes a violation of any Federal rule, regulation, standard, or order applicable to Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV) safety. In such a case, a driver may submit a signed complaint to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”