Tracy Morgan crash raises questions over bid to raise truckers' hours

The crash that injured comic Tracy Morgan was a result of truck driver fatigue, authorities say. Fatal truck accidents are increasing, and truckers' hours could, too.

Mel Evans/AP
Kevin Roper leaves a court appearance Wednesday in New Brunswick, N.J. Mr. Roper, a Wal-Mart truck driver from Georgia, was charged with death by auto in the accident that killed one and critically injured comedian Tracy Morgan.

A high-profile highway crash last weekend is raising questions about the trucking industry’s efforts to raise the number of hours truck drivers are allowed behind the wheel.

Driver fatigue is blamed for the accident on the New Jersey Turnpike in Cranbury Township that killed James McNair and injured four others, including former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Tracy Morgan. Mr. Morgan remains hospitalized in critical but stable condition.

The five men were in a limousine bus when a Wal-Mart truck driven by Kevin Roper plowed into them. Authorities say Mr. Roper had not slept for 24 hours. Before the accident, he failed to slow for a traffic pileup and swerved at the last moment to avoid a front-end collision. He is charged with one count of death by auto and several counts of assault by auto.

Driver fatigue is seen a leading factor in large truck crashes, and 12 percent of all highway fatalities involve trucks, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

The problem of fatal truck crashes is getting worse. Agency data show 3,464 truck crashes with fatalities in 2012, an increase of 2.9 percent from the year before and 16 percent from 2009. Yet the number remains significantly below recent historic norms. From 1990 to 2007, police reported more than 4,000 fatal truck crashes every year but one.

Federal guidelines allow for 14-hour work shifts that include 11 hours of driving time. Brooke Buchanan, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, says that Roper was “operating within those federal hours of service regulations.”

Last year, new FMCSA rules limited the average work week for truck drivers to 70 hours to ensure rest. But a bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee aims to raise that limit to 82 hours a week.

Trucking interests say that the 70-hour rules are not supported by science and have created “substantial negative effects” on the economy and industry, according to American Trucking Associations President Bill Graves in a statement.

The organization says the decrease in hours will create congestion during daylight hours, since more truckers will be forced to start rolling their trucks later, rather than earlier during nighttime hours.

An amendment by Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine to a bill passed out of the transportation committee seeks to suspend the 70-hour rules for at least a year for further study.

But road safety advocates and the Obama administration oppose any changes, saying that the industry has no conclusive data to support the safety benefits of raising the hourly road limits.

“This is equivalent to adding an additional work day to the work week of a truck driver. What is being portrayed as a small change to the rest period actually has a large impact on crash risk and will set back safety for everyone sharing the roads,” said the Truck Safety Coalition in a statement.

Driver fatigue is not limited to trucking accidents. Sleeping while on the job was blamed for a train derailment last December in the Bronx Borough of New York City that killed four people and injured dozens. In April, a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) driver admitted dozing, resulting in a train collision at O’Hare International Airport that caused $6 million in damage and injuring at least 20 people.

As a result of the accident, the CTA said it was increasing the minimum rest time between shifts from eight to 10 hours, and that new operators would be allowed behind the wheel for only 32 hours a week during their first year. There is no limit currently. The transit authority also set a maximum of 12 hours of train operation per shift; no maximum exists currently.

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