Many EU Member States responded to the COVID-19 crisis and the queues at internal EU borders by relaxing their domestic driving times and rest periods. On 29 April 2020, the Commission has approved these exemptions for eleven Member States - including Austria. As a result, drivers in many States are permitted to drive longer hours and/or may have shorter breaks.
In Austria, lorry drivers are now permitted to drive up to 11 hours daily - the EU Regulation on driving times and rest periods specifies 9 hours, which twice a week may be extended to 10 hours. Instead of currently 56 hours, drivers may now be on the road for 60 hours; over a period of two weeks, 100 instead of currently 90 hours of driving are now legally possible. Under strong pressure from the Chamber of Labour, the current rest periods for Austria remain unchanged.
Other countries go even further in the race to gain exemptions at the expense of drivers: In Sweden, it is now possible for drivers to be on the road for 120 hours over a period of two week; with regard to a six-day week, this means 10 hours driving time. At the same time, the daily rest period (to recover during night hours) has been reduced from eleven to nine hours. The same regulation regarding the daily rest period also applies in Slovakia; apart from that, drivers in Slovakia may only take a break after 5.5 hours of uninterrupted driving. Until now, a break was deemed necessary after 4.5 hours driving at the latest. In the Netherlands and Rumania it is permitted that drivers are on the road for seven consecutive days before having to take a weekly rest period, in which they have at least one full day to recover.
Whilst in Sweden these exemptions also apply to passenger transport, they only affect goods transport in the other countries. The Commission not only states in the permit for Austria that due to the complex supply chains and the unpredictability, which goods have to be regarded as essential, it is impossible to restrict the exemption to the transport of essential goods. However, the Netherlands prove that this is very well possible as her exemption is restricted to the transport of essential goods, which includes the supply of pharmacies and food stores. This also applies to Belgium, where the definition of essential goods also extends to medical products and fuel.
All these exemptions bear witness to the uncontrolled growth of national solo initiatives at the expense of drivers, making their difficult working conditions even worse. It is unreasonable to expect drivers to keep track of how long they have been driving and when they have to take a break if it is different in any single country. Hence, the statement of the Commission that “the exemption will provide drivers the flexibility they need to keep goods moving around Europe”, is completely incomprehensible.
The authorities will find it almost impossible to control these national exemptions as driving times and rest periods always refers to last two weeks, independent of the country, in which the driver has been on the road. Hence, the question with regard to cross-border transport arises: Does the authority of a country, which does not provide for exemptions, have to take action concerning an exceedance, if such a national exception has been used previously in another country? Apart from that, this represents unfair competition within Europe, if countries provide for different driving times and rest periods.
The eleven national exemptions, approved by the Commission, apply - for the time being – until 31 May 2020. Extending this period has not been excluded. Apart from that, it has been announced by the Commission that over the coming weeks nine other member states will receive a positive decision to their requests for temporary exemptions.
In times of the COVID-19 crisis, services provided by drivers often are called system-relevant, expressing the recognition for key core workers. These exemptions soberingly show how much this recognition is worth in daily life, true to the motto: free movement of goods at any price.