Tracy Morgan crash heats up trucking debate

A high-profile traffic accident involving comedian Tracy Morgan has added fire to a debate in Congress about overnight scheduling rules for truck drivers.

Morgan was critically injured in an accident that occurred around 1 a.m. Saturday in New Jersey when a bus carrying his entourage was struck by a freight truck that was being operated for Wal-Mart. Another passenger in Morgan’s bus was killed in the crash.

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The driver of the truck, Kevin Roper, told police he was awake for 24 hours at the time of the crash, according to reports.

Roper was arrested and charged with death by auto and four counts of assault by auto. Morgan has been hospitalized since the incident.

The crash came as Washington lawmakers consider weakening some federal regulations for trucker scheduling intended to prevent fatigued driving.

An amendment, sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), was included in the Department of Transportation funding bill for 2015 that passed the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. It would suspend two regulations related to driver rest periods pending further study. 

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) said her staff is looking at the connection between the amendment and the driver in the Morgan crash.

“We are looking at that right now,” she said.

Feinstein said she is discussing whether to bring a Senate floor amendment that would strike the Collins amendment and that the details of the Morgan crash aside, it highlights the need to fight against trucker fatigue.

“I don’t understand how anybody could reduce rest periods for drivers of these huge, huge rigs. And they want to make them bigger,” she said.

Critics of proposals to relax overnight scheduling rules said Wednesday they hoped the Morgan accident would give lawmakers reason to reconsider their stance.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety Vice President of Government Affairs Cathy Chase noted that the accident involving Morgan occurred around 1 a.m. and that the Collins language relates to the 1 to 5 am rest period.

“We certainly hope this brings attention to the problem of overly tired drivers,” she said. “It’s an unfortunate example of what’s happening on our roads, and it’s going to get worse if this amendment stays in the bill.”   

Collins told The Hill her amendment is designed to address driver fatigue and that Roper appeared to have acted illegally under current law regardless of her amendment.

“First of all it is very important to note that that driver has been charged,” she said.

“I think is important to note is that this horrific clash is illegal now and the driving would be illegal under my amendment if it becomes law,” Collins said.

She said that the regulations from last year are making many truckers more tired.

“What I am hearing from truck drivers and safety experts is that the changes that were made in July of last year are worsening the fatigue of drivers because it is taking someone who is used to working the night shift and putting them on the road on daylight hours when there is more congestion,” she said. “To require them to be off the roads during those less congested hours does not make a lot of sense.”

Collins’ amendment would eliminate a current requirement that truck drivers take breaks between 1 and 5 a.m. on consecutive nights before they can work again. The amendment would also rescind a limit on the number of times truck drivers can declare they are starting a new work week.

DOT rules that would be left in place limit truck drivers to working 70 hours within one week. They would have to take an immediate 34-hour break before they can get back behind the wheel and they can only do so once every 168 hours, or one week.

The trucking industry had argued that the overnight scheduling rules resulted in more trucks being on the road during daytime hours, when traffic is heavier and trips take longer to complete.

Trucker groups also said the DOT regulations were resulting in drivers having to take two full days off in some cases before they could work again.

American Trucking Association Vice President for Safety Policy Dave Osiecki told The Hill that it was too soon to draw conclusions about the relationship between the proposed rule changes and the crash involving Tracy Morgan.

“All the facts are not known," he said. "Anyone inferring the proposal had anything to do with the crash is simply inaccurate, based on what we have heard in the press.

"Truck drivers have to come to work rested and they cannot operate fatigued," Osiecki continued. "To suggest that there’s even a link as some have done is really out of bounds."  

 

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