U.S. truckers appeal for government to keep rest stops and gas stations open

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the United States gradually shuts down in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the trucking and tire industry is appealing to the government to allow gas stations, rest stops, and repair facilities to remain open to keep deliveries rolling.

FILE PHOTO: A trucker arrives to haul shipping containers at Yusen Terminals (YTI) on Terminal Island at the Port of Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation, for example, shut down all of its rest areas and welcome centers to the public on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it agreed to reopen the parking lots at nearly half of them at the request of truckers and the Trump administration.

Other states are considering similar closures, officials said, to try to prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus and discourage people from traveling.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which counts 160,000 members nationwide, said closures were giving drivers the impression that they were being asked to put productivity ahead of their own personal safety.

“Rest areas aren’t simply places to purchase snacks and beverages from vending machines – they are invaluable locations to rest when fatigued,” the association said in a letter to the U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. It said truckers “rely on rest areas to do just that – rest!”

A spokesman for Chao said the department was asking states to keep rest stops open for parking - even if they no longer had public employees on site.

The issue is especially urgent since the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued an emergency order on Friday to waive the usual time-off requirements for commercial vehicle drivers transporting emergency coronavirus relief.

On Wednesday, FMCSA said it was expanding the order to include other categories of deliveries, including fuel and raw materials - such as paper, plastic or alcohol - used in the manufacture of essential items like sanitizers.

Industry groups covering truckers, tire manufacturers and auto care businesses have released statements or letters lobbying for exemptions to restrictions.

Vehicle supply and repair facilities provide services “essential to maintaining critical operations and the flow of commerce,” said the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association, which argued in a statement issued Tuesday that gas stations, vehicle repair facilities, and service stations should be designated an “essential service” by state and local government officials.

More than 3.5 million people – overwhelmingly men – drive trucks for a living in the United States, according to the U.S. census bureau.

In a letter to U.S President Donald Trump made public on Monday, the American Trucking Association said the government should waive restrictions on truck drivers delivering essential goods, give drivers alternative ways of renewing their licenses as state facilities shut down, and keep rest stops open.

“In this current crisis, we ask for your help in supplying America, together,” the letter said.

Reporting by Raphael Satter and David Shepardson, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien