The June 7, 2014 accident in which 30 Rock star Tracy Morgan was seriously injured, his close friend James McNair killed, and several passengers injured when a Wal-Mart truck rear ended their Mercedes limousine, has highlighted the significant issue of truck driver fatigue leading to many fatal accidents and serious injuries to occupants of other vehicles.
Prosecutors allege that Kevin Roper, 35, drove a Wal-Mart tractor-trailer into the rear of the Mercedes carrying the six men after Roper had not slept for over 24 hours. In addition to denying the allegations at his arraignment last week, Roper has taken to social media, including Twitter, to deny the allegations. Mr. Roper was charged with one count of death by auto and four counts of assault by auto.
Drowsy driving is a significant safety issue on U.S. roads in 2014. This month alone, there have been at least three fatal accidents involving truck driver fatigue in Austin, Texas, Marseilles, Illinois, and Madison County, Ohio, in addition to the Cranberry, New Jersey accident on the New Jersey Turnpike involving Mr. Morgan, Mr. McNair and the other passengers. Last year, federal regulations were modified to limit truckers’ weekly hours from 82 to 70. These federal rules require that drivers must not work more than an eleven hour day, are required to take a 30 minute break, and must rest at least two nights per week from 1:00 AM to 5:00 AM.
Trucking industry lobbyists are pushing hard to reverse the strengthened safety regulations, claiming that driver fatigue is an exaggerated issue, and that there is no solid evidence that the spate of fatal accidents and serious injuries are attributable to driver fatigue or drowsy driving. Susan Collins, the Republican U.S. Senator from Maine, has introduced an amendment through the Senate Appropriations Committee designed to freeze the application of the modified safety rules until “further study” has been conducted—in other words, Collins is trying to kill the enhanced regulations as she is undoubtedly well supported by the trucking industry in her state. A representative of the Teamsters Union noted that fatigue has long been underreported at accident scenes, and stated: Congestion on the highways is greater than ever, there are more vehicles on the road than ever before, and drivers have to be more attentive than ever…drivers need to get proper rest to do the job that they do.”
In 1990, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted a study of 182 heavy truck accidents in which the driver was killed and determined that fatigue was a factor in 31 % of the accidents, more than drugs or alcohol. The Federal Department of Transportation created the new safety rules using an estimate that fatigue related accidents were approximately 13% of the total trucking accidents. This figure was calculated in a 2006 project called the “Large Truck Crash Causation Study.”
In the Morgan accident on June 7th, the Wal-Mart truck was supposed to be equipped with technology by which the truck would automatically slow down if it approached slow moving traffic or stopped traffic, which obviously did not work. Wal-Mart has refused to provide Mr. Roper’s schedule prior to the crash, despite denying the claims that he was fatigued or had driven for more than 24 hours straight without a break. The company claimed that the investigation into the accident was “incomplete” in refusing to provide Roper’s driving schedule, although this obviously adds to the “incomplete” status of the investigation.
We will continue to follow this story as the enhanced truck safety regulations are fought over in the Senate over the next several months.