Fatigue in National Spotlight After Deadly Crash in N.J.

The truck-involved crash that critically injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed a colleague is shining a spotlight on highway safety and driver fatigue as Congress simultaneously tackles those issues.

The early-morning accident on June 7 involved a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. truck, whose driver, Kevin Roper, was arrested and charged with death by auto.

His truck allegedly struck the comedian’s limousine-van, killing James McNair, and injuring Morgan, who has starred on “30 Rock” and “Saturday Night Live.” Two others were seriously injured in the six-vehicle incident on the New Jersey Turnpike, police reports said.

“This is a tragedy, and we are profoundly sorry that one of our trucks was involved,” Wal-Mart said in a statement. “The facts are continuing to unfold. If it’s determined that our truck caused the accident, Wal-Mart will take full responsibility.”

Days before the accident, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to suspend 2013 changes in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s hours-of-service restart provision. The suspension, designed to provide more time for research, is backed by trucking interests, including American Trucking Associations, on grounds that it has not improved highway safety.

FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro often has defended the agency, saying the 2013 change has reduced fatigue.

The awareness level of the driver, who police said had not slept for at least 24 hours before the crash, also renewed the National Transportation Safety Board’s focus on truck safety. Wal-Mart said in a statement that it believed Roper was in compliance with the HOS rule.

Roper’s reportedly long commute to start his driving day was likely to merit close examination of how drivers use their off-duty time. Wal-Mart hasn’t said where his run began or how far it was from his Atlanta-area home.

On June 11, Roper, who was driving a 2011 model Peterbilt, appeared in Middlesex County Court. He entered a not-guilty plea.

ATA President Bill Graves said on June 11 that the accident “was an example of how a rule written on paper doesn’t guide human behavior,” and he maintained support for all aspects of current HOS regulations other than the requirement of consecutive 1 a.m.–5 a.m. restart periods.

“No rule can address what a driver does in his or her off-duty time,” he said.

Graves also spoke during a radio show about the need for broader use of safety steps such as mandatory electronic logging devices, a nationwide speed limit and the use of speed limiters.

Separately, Dave Osiecki, executive vice president of national advocacy for ATA, took issue with several published reports suggesting the accident was linked in some way to the HOS debate.

“Any inference or suggestion that the proposal being considered by the U.S. Senate had anything to do with the crash is completely inaccurate,” he said. “The crash was a tragedy, and it’s being compounded by those seeking to use it to their political advantage. The driver’s alleged actions and choices during his off-duty time are completely separate from the hours-of-service rules.”

The accident spurred renewed attention to driver fatigue from other groups.

“This just tells you [fatigue] is a widespread problem, and we need to be taking steps to correct it and not make it worse,” said John Lannen, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition.

“The highways have to be made safer,” Daphne Izer, whose Parents Against Tired Truckers group is part of the Safety Coalition, said on a television news program. “Everybody’s family is at risk out there.”

With more than 6,500 tractors, Wal-Mart ranks No. 4 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Its drivers include Gary Harms, who was the Bendix National Truck Driving Championships grand champion last year.

America’s Road Team currently includes a Wal-Mart driver, and other drivers for the retailer have been on past teams.

In an interview with TT, NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said his agency is investigating four other accidents in which truckers ran into slower-moving or stopped vehicles.

“There were multiple vehicles involved, so we would like to see what issues are at play in this [New Jersey] accident,” Holloway said. “As in all investigations, we will look at the work-rest schedule of the drivers.”

Among the four accidents are an incident on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge last year in which a truck struck a car and knocked it into the bay and one this year in which an Illinois Tollway worker died when hit by a truck.



By Rip Watson