WASHINGTON — The deadly highway accident that seriously injured comedian Tracy Morgan is emboldening opposition to efforts in Congress to loosen limits on how many hours truckers can be on the road.
Police say the driver of a Wal-Mart Stores truck hadn’t slept for more than 24 hours when his tractor-trailer struck a limousine van carrying Morgan. Just two days earlier, a Senate committee voted to suspend federal hours-of-service rules for truckers that had taken effect less than a year ago.
At least four other accidents already under investigation by the NTSB involved similar circumstances in which truck drivers struck slower traffic ahead, Don Karol, director of the National Transportation Safety Board’s highway safety office, said in a Web post. The latest accident raised enough safety flags that the NTSB, which examines only a small fraction of highway accidents each year, sent a team to investigate.
“This just tells you this is a widespread problem, and we need to be taking steps to correct it and not make it worse,” John Lannen, executive director of the Arlington, Virginia-based Truck Safety Coalition, said in an interview.
Driver fatigue is one of the issues the NTSB has raised in previous accidents, and it has prompted recommendations to restrict the hours drivers can be at the wheel, Karol said.
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-based group that works with the insurers, is drafting a letter to members of the House asking them not to support the Senate amendment provisions, according to Cathy Chase, vice president of governmental affairs for the group.
The main federal regulation requiring truckers to take an extended break after reaching weekly time limits would be suspended for one year under the amendment adopted by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The regulation, which set a 70-hour cap on a trucker’s workweek, had taken effect in July 2013 and immediately drew criticism from the industry.
The Senate measure would effectively restore the industry’s 82-hour workweek.
The accident shouldn’t be cause for the Senate Appropriations Committee to reverse course, said Dave Osiecki, executive vice president of national advocacy for the American Trucking Associations, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group.
“Since there are no facts out there in the public, and it’s being investigated by NTSB, we certainly hope it has no impact on the discussion in the Senate,” Osiecki said in an interview.
Kevin Roper, 35, of Jonesboro, Georgia, drove “without having slept for a period in excess of 24 hours” before the six-vehicle accident, according to the police complaint.
Wal-Mart, which has apologized for the accident, said that “it is our belief that Mr. Roper was operating within the federal hours-of-service regulations.”
“Federal law requires drivers to work no more than 14 hours for any shift and 11 hours of driving,” the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer said in a statement Monday on its website.
The Senate amendment was attached to a broad transportation funding bill that has to be passed by the full Senate. The House version of the funding bill, which doesn’t include the trucking amendment, is scheduled for consideration and would have to be reconciled with the Senate’s.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee, spoke against the amendment last week, citing constituents who died in trucking accidents.
“This amendment will mean more truckers working longer hours,” Mikulski said. “Is this really in everyone’s best interest?”
The amendment, proposed by Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, was designed to enhance safety, said Kevin Kelly, a spokesman.
“To infer that the proposal that is being considered by the Senate had anything to do with the horrific crash is inaccurate,” Kelly said in an interview.
The amendment wouldn’t change basic rest requirements or daily limits on working, he said. The industry has said the rules for scheduling rest breaks at night forced more trucks onto the road during daylight hours when highways are more congested.
Truck crashes caused 3,912 fatalities in 2012, and the fatal-crash rate increased each year from 2009 through 2012, reversing a five-year trend. The hours-of-service regulation was expected to prevent 1,400 truck crashes a year, saving 19 lives and avoiding 560 injuries.
The June 7 crash at 1 a.m. on the New Jersey Turnpike left comedian James McNair, 62, of Peekskill, New York, dead and three others, including Morgan, 45, critically injured. They were traveling together in a Mercedes Sprinter limousine van that spun and flipped over after being struck by the truck.
Roper, who’s free on $50,000 bail, is charged with death by auto and assault in the complaint filed in Cranbury Township, New Jersey.
Roper “failed to observe” slow-moving traffic ahead of him until it was too late, colliding with the limousine, said Gregory Williams of the New Jersey State Police.
Bill Simon, president of Wal-Mart U.S., apologized for the accident and said the company is cooperating with law enforcement. Wal-Mart U.S. is a unit of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retail chain, with about $476 billion of revenue for the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, 2014.
The NTSB also is investigating an April accident in California in which a FedEx Corp. tractor pulling twin trailers crossed an interstate-highway median and collided with a bus carrying high school students bound for a college tour. Five of those young people were among the 10 fatalities. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration also sent a team to examine the accident.
“During the past year, the NTSB has responded to numerous crashes involving large trucks,” Karol said. “The upward trend in crashes, fatalities, and injuries involving large trucks is a cause for concern.”
Osiecki of the ATA said the industry supports most of the regulations and believes that portion addressed in the Senate amendment will improve safety, not lower it.
“The industry was operating safely under the old rules,” he said.
The highway safety advocates, who held a conference call for the media with families of those killed in previous crashes, said people would be shocked at how many hours truckers can work in a week.
“It’s a crash of a famous person that got the attention of the media,” Chase said. “Unfortunately, crashes like this happen every day.”