The deadly crash involving a Walmart tractor trailer and several other vehicles that injured actor/comedian Tracy Morgan and others has triggered a backlash against Congressional efforts to relax Hours-of-Service rules mandating how many hours per day commercial truck drivers can work.
Just two days before Saturday’s crash on the New Jersey turnpike, a Senate committee voted to suspend tougher hours-of-service regulations passed just last year. The tightened regulations were part of an effort to reverse a trend of escalating commercial truck crashes and fatalities that began in 2009, most of which are linked to driver fatigue. Opposition to the suspension of the new rules was already in place, but Saturday’s high-profile crash has given those voices extra force.
The crash occurred when Walmart driver Kevin Roper, 35, of Jonesboro, Ga., failed to notice slowed traffic on the turnpike and swerved to avoid it, subsequently striking a limousine van carrying Tracy Morgan, his assistant, and other comics on their way back to New York from a Delaware show.
The crash killed comic James McNair, 62, of Peekskill, New York, and critically injured Mr. Morgan and two others. A third passenger received serious injuries. Mr. Morgan is expected to remain in the hospital for several weeks.
Police investigating the crash said that the Walmart truck driver had not slept in more than 24 hours.
“It’s a crash of a famous person that got the attention of the media,” Cathy Chase of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety told Bloomberg. “Unfortunately crashes like this happen every day.”
According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, commercial truck crashes killed 3,912 people in 2012, and the fatal-crash rate increased each year from 2009 through 2012. Prior to 2009, fatal truck crash rates had been declining.
“During the past year, the (National Transportation Safety Board) has responded to numerous crashes involving large trucks,” Don Karol, director of the National Transportation Safety Board’s highway safety office, said in a web post. “The upward trend in crashes, fatalities, and injuries involving large trucks is a cause for concern.”
The new hours-of-service rules, which capped a trucker’s workweek at 70 hours and required rest periods in the night hours, were expected to prevent 1,400 truck crashes annually while saving an estimated 19 lives and sparing an additional 560 people from injury.
Previously, truckers were allowed to work 82 hours weekly and weren’t generally required to take rest periods at night. The new rules, which took effect last July, were contested by the trucking industry, which successfully lobbied lawmakers to reverse them.
“This amendment will mean more truckers working longer hours,” Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said of the Senate’s effort to undo the safety improvements. “Is this really in everyone’s best interest?”