A high-profile fatal accident on the New Jersey Turnpike has Sen. Susan Collins, Maine, and several of the state’s top advocates for trucking safety squaring off in the national spotlight.
The crash on June 7 killed comic James McNair, who goes by the stage name Jimmy Mack. Seriously injured in the crash was former “SNL” and “30 Rock” actor and comic Tracy Morgan.
Police investigating the crash say the truck driver, who has since been charged with manslaughter and vehicular assault, went 24 hours without sleep.
On Tuesday, Daphne Izer of Lisbon, founder of Parents Against Tired Truckers, said an amendment offered by Collins that would suspend a small portion of new, required-rest rules for truck drivers would cost more lives. She said the Morgan crash was one more tragic example of why stricter rest rules for truckers are needed.
Izer’s son, Jeff, and three of his friends were killed in October 1993 when the car they were in was hit by a dozing driver in a tractor-trailer as the teens were parked in the breakdown lane of the Maine Turnpike.
Collins and her supporters say her amendment would save lives by helping to keep trucks off America’s highways during the busiest commuting hours of the day, while giving drivers more flexibility to rest when they need to without losing valuable work hours.
Collins’ measure also calls for a $4 million study of the issue to determine whether so-called mandatory “restart” rules are helping to save lives or are pushing more trucks onto the roads when they are most congested.
Collins’ amendment is part of a transportation funding package that goes into effect in October. The amendment was approved with bipartisan support. It is less of a rollback than a proposal offered by 2nd U.S House District Rep. Mike Michaud, Maine. He proposed suspending more of the rest rules, which went into effect in July 2013, until the federal government could fully study their effect.
Collins’ amendment suspends the law that allows truckers to use a 34-hour rest period once a week and allows them to use the 34-hour break more than once, spokesman Kevin Kelley said. Under her proposal, truckers must still take a 34-hour break after working 70 hours a week, he said.
In a conference call Tuesday, Izer was joined by a host of trucking safety advocates, including members of the nation’s largest truck-driver union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, in urging federal lawmakers to oppose Collins and support an amendment proposed by U.S. Sens. Corey Booker, D-New Jersey, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut.
Blumenthal and Booker are offering an amendment, which is expected to come before the full Senate soon, that would cancel out most of Collins’ amendment.
Izer and others maintain the change proposed by Collins would allow truckers to work up to 12 hours longer per week — as many as 82 hours — compared to the maximum 70 they are now allowed. She said it would allow trucking companies to push their drivers to work longer hours to deliver goods.
“No amount of freight is worth a human life,” Izer said Tuesday.
Izer said her group sought to limit a trucker’s daily work hours to 10 per day, but Congress agreed to an 11-hour workday, with exemptions that allow a trucker to work up to 14 hours in certain circumstances.
“No other industry in this country pushes its workers the way the trucking industry does,” Izer said Tuesday from Washington, D.C.
Collins, however, has said her amendment leaves in place almost all of the current rest requirements for truck drivers and would allow them to take more than one 34-hour rest in a seven-day period without penalty, which current rules do not allow.
Kelley, Collins’ spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday, “Many improvements in truck driver safety have been implemented over the past decade, and Sen. Collins supports those regulations. For example, current federal laws limit the number of hours that a truck driver can be behind the wheel in a day and mandate that he or she be off duty for at least 10 hours a day. The fact is no one, including Sen. Collins, wants to see changes that would hurt public safety.”
Kelley added, “Her amendment, adopted by a strong, bipartisan 21-9 vote by the Senate Appropriations Committee, would not change the total number of hours a driver can work during the day, the amount of time he or she must be off-duty, the requirement for a 30-minute rest period during a shift, nor the upcoming requirement for electronic, on-board recorders.
Statistics from the federal Department of Transportation show the safest time for truckers to drive is overnight, Kelley said.
“Unfortunately, as the former administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration wrote in her letter, two provisions that took effect last July have presented some unintended and unanticipated consequences that may actually be making our nation’s roads less safe by forcing more trucks onto the highways during the congested, daytime hours when roads are crowded with cars and school buses, rather than at night when there is less traffic,” he said.
“The likelihood of a crash nearly quadruples during the time frame from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.,” he said.
Kelley said Tuesday the driver involved in the Morgan accident would have been in violation of the rules either way, based on the police investigation.
The appropriations measure, with or without the Collins amendment, will need to be reconciled with a bill coming from the House that will be negotiated by a conference committee of the two bodies.
Collins’ political rival in her upcoming re-election bid, Maine Democrat Shenna Bellows, said Tuesday the move by Collins to roll back the rules lacked transparency.
“Republican Susan Collins’ amendment was introduced in committee, away from public scrutiny and without public debate, as a favor to the trucking industry,” Bellows said.
“Traffic safety groups have publicly opposed it since it came to light,” she added. “The only justification for it is to make it easier to push drivers beyond their limits for the sake of the bottom line. She should withdraw it as soon as possible.”
Maine Republicans have leveled criticism at Bellows for not speaking out against Michaud’s proposals to roll back the regulations.
Scott Ogden, a spokesman for Maine’s junior U.S. senator, independent Angus King, said King was still reviewing data and had not yet taken a position on the amendment.
“With public safety as the highest priority, Sen. King is continuing to examine data regarding hours-of-service rules, talk with his Senate colleagues, and solicit stakeholder and expert views on the proper balance between hours-of-service limitations, safety and industry needs,” Ogden said Wednesday.