COVID-19 May Change Trucking Routes as the Nation Reopens
Modern trucking routes are highly planned, coordinated and refined to ensure that the U.S. infrastructure gets needed goods and resources just in time. In fact, the Freight Analysis Framework—which is the result of a partnership between the Federal Highway Administration and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics—estimates that U.S trucking is a $700 billion per year industry that accounts for 71% of all freight moved throughout the nation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the logistical challenges facing truckers have increased significantly, and leading trucking accident attorneys are concerned about the COVID-19 truck route changes as the nation reopens, thus forcing further hardships on the people providing this essential service.
A Transformed Trucking Landscape
From the independent contractor to the company managing a large fleet, trucking in the U.S. underwent a paradigm shift as soon as federal guidelines for dealing with the pandemic were established. Truckers were designated as essential and could continue operating as normal, but nothing about this ongoing situation actually was normal. Almost immediately, there were disruptions in the supply chain, in particular among sectors that rely heavily on imports. There was increased demand in other quarters, from grocery stores, for example, that were struggling to keep up with panic buying. There was also decreased demand from businesses such as bars, restaurants and event sites that were no longer purchasing food and supplies. Long-established routes suddenly changed because the goods shipped, the originators of those goods and the recipients of those goods had all changed as well.
COVID-19 Truck Route Changes are Challenges Facing U.S. Truckers
The trucking industry in America began facing challenges as soon as states started shutting down nonessential businesses. Even businesses that remained open often had curfews, which shrunk the time windows for deliveries that were already being disrupted by travel restrictions, supply chain shortages and so forth. As states begin entering the second and third phases of reopening—and, in some cases, even consider delaying them—more challenges are expected. This is particularly true among interstate truckers who may have to contend with very different situations and circumstances in the various states their routes pass through. Their considerations include:
- Full or partial business closures
- Access to driver licensing agencies
- CDL expiration and extensions
- Altered size and weight limits
- CDL medical grace period changes
- Road, rest stop and parking closures
DHS Introduces Route-Planning Tool
Altered trucking routes are not just a business problem. As mentioned earlier, trucking is vital to the American infrastructure. Many truckers will have their routes changed multiple times after their departure, and it might often happen on the fly. This will have a ripple effect that can even compromise national security. With that in mind, the Department of Homeland Security—and, in particular, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in partnership with the Idaho National Laboratory—developed the Commercial Routing Assistance tool. The tool was released on May 6 well ahead of most phase-two and phase-three reopening so that any issues could be ironed out before the demand on the resource peaked. The tool is able to analyze a route to provide information about most of the considerations listed above. If a route changes, the tool takes that into account and provides drivers with the updated details they require.
Warehouses and Distribution Centers
A current challenge that is expected to persist as states reopen is access to warehouses, distribution centers, manufacturing plants and so forth. The bulk of interstate deliveries is made to locations such as these, and from there, goods are distributed locally on a smaller scale. Many warehouses and distribution centers receive their shipments at night in order to limit the logistical challenges. However, curfews may remain in effect for these businesses, and that would necessitate receiving more deliveries during daylight hours. Even as curfews relax, warehouses are likely to have reduced capacities due to limits on how many employees and vendors may congregate at the same time. These are logistical hurdles that the Commercial Routing Assistance tool will probably fail to take into account, and they could prove quite problematic for independent contractors who serve multiple clients and lack the routing resources available to fleets.
Volatility of the Trucking Market
In the early days of the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was some concern that there might be a shortage of trucking resources. While the total demand for drivers was not being met prior to COVID-19, no additional deficiency ever materialized. In fact, multiple American trucking associations reported that the supply of both trucks and drivers far exceeded demand. That had a lot to do with disruptions in the supply chain and the challenges facing warehouses and distribution centers discussed above. As of late May, many trucking companies and trade associations began reporting a surge in demand, but it will be some time before that demand reaches normal levels. That may result in many truckers navigating sparser routes and getting paid less to do it as rates are driven down.
Navigating Uncertain Routes
There is a U.S. Army term coined during the Cold War, and it could apply to what comes next: VUCA. It’s derived from the words volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The term was recently revived in the white paper “Restarting the Economy” to describe the challenges facing truckers and other entities in the supply chain. There will be a new normal. There is no guarantee that the trucking trade will return to exactly what it was before the pandemic, and even if it does, the length of time it takes to do so is currently unknowable. The white paper indicates various technologies that the industry should implement in order better navigate changed and changing routes. These include:
- Telematics to reduce expenses
- Precautions to improve driver safety
- Real-time rerouting and redeployment solutions
- Virtual practices to make interactions more efficient
- Trailer and product sensors to monitor critical items
Route Optimization Tools for COVID-19 Truck Route Changes
It’s unlikely that the changes to trucking routes will all be negative. There are positive aspects already, and those benefits will continue to become more prevalent as the industry works through this. In fact, there are many industry experts who believe that trucking will be better off in the long term due to advancements to route optimization software. Some experts believe that the American supply chain was too optimized around JIT logistics, which exacerbated issues when synchronization was disrupted. It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention, and the COVID-19 pandemic has required route optimizers to be more agile. They’re learning to better account for driver health, prioritize shipped goods and serve markets that require less than a full truckload.
Legal Assistance for Truckers About COVID-19 Truck Route Changes
Truckers are vital to the American way of life. They are not just essential workers but also rightfully celebrated as heroes during these unprecedented times. Continuing to operate while much of the nation has been closed has undoubtedly presented significant challenges. If you’re currently facing legal issues, those challenges may constitute extenuating circumstances. At Rebenack Aronow & Mascolo, L.L.P.—RAM Law—we are trucking accident attorneys who want to help, and we have considerable experience doing so. In New Jersey, our firm has offices in both New Brunswick and Somerville. You can contact us online or call us at (732) 394-1549 to schedule a free consultation.