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Late this past Saturday night (June 7, 2014) as a limousine bus carrying comedian Tracy Morgan and 6 other people drove home from a late night comedy show, just behind them a tractor-trailer driver failed to notice the traffic slowing down. It was 1:00 in the morning and the trucker had been “without sleep in excess of 24 hours”, according to the complaint filed in Middlesex County Court this morning.   In an attempt to avoid a crash, the truck driver swerved, hitting the limo bus and causing a pile-up that involved an SUV, two other cars and another tractor-trailer. One man is dead and Morgan and a friend are in critical condition in the hospital. The tractor-trailer driver has been charged with vehicular homicide and three accounts of assault.  (New York Times, 6/9/14)

There is no such thing as good timing when death and injury are involved, but in this case the crash may direct some attention on recent legislative actions advanced by Senator Susan Collins. “Collins’ amendment, to a large transportation funding bill, would suspend for one year a federal requirement that truck drivers who work the maximum of 70 hours in a week take a 34-hour break during the week that includes two consecutive nights off. The earliest a driver can get back on the road after the break is 5 a.m.”

The rule that Sen. Collins wants to suspend was the result of years of studies and legal challenges by highway safety groups and advocates. The DOT rules that Collins refers to, known as “restart” requirements, have been in effect since July 2013. “They also require that truck drivers work no more than 11 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week and be allowed to take at least one 30-minute break during the first eight hours of their shift.” (The Hill)

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “from 2009 to 2012, the rate of fatal truck crashes increased nationwide, reversing a trend of sinking rates. In 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available, truck crashes caused 3,912 deaths.  The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration projected that last year’s changes to the hours-of-operation rules would prevent 1,400 truck-involved crashes a year, save 19 lives and prevent more than 500 injuries.”

Anne Ferro, administrator at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, wrote about Collins’ proposal on the US Department of Transportation blog,  explaining the process used in making the original ruling, with images from the more horrific cases to illustrate the devastation and loss of life caused by fatigued truckers. Ferro notes a statistic that Senator Collins failed to include in her statements; the data analysis shows that newly updated rules impact less than 15% of the truck driving population. They will target those drivers working the most grueling schedules. The ones on the road for hours and hours with few breaks—drivers like 35-year-old Kevin Roper, of Jonesboro, Georgia, responsible for the crash that killed one man and critically injured comedian and actor, Tracy Morgan.

Ferro wrote, “We carefully considered the public safety and health risks of long work hours, and solicited input from everyone who has a stake in this important issue, including victims’ advocates, truck drivers and companies,” she wrote in the post. “Suspending the current Hours-of-Service safety rules will expose families and drivers to greater risk every time they’re on the road.” (US DOT Blog,  6/3/14).

Collins stated in the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting that the new ruling failed to take in consideration the increase of trucks on the road during peak traffic hours as a result of the changes.  She may be right, but those drivers would be driving in daylight, less fatigued and less likely to cause accidents. Currently we have a dangerous situation where drivers are forced to drive long hours as they only make money when in the driver’s seat, moving product from point A to point B, as quickly as possible.   There is no incentive for truckers or the trucking industry to reduce road hours from 82 to 70 hours a week.  While making a profit is very important, traffic safety should be our major concern. Saving lives (not making money) is NHTSA’s mandate. And, this recent tragic crash involving a celebrity serves to focus a spotlight on bad laws, like the amendment proposed by Sen. Collins, and remind us of the human lives that will be threatened by these rulings.

And as I would expect, opponents of the Department of Transportation’s new rules are lining up to support Collins’ amendment. They include the American Trucking Association, Alliance for Safe, Efficient and Competitive Truck Transportation and Auto Haulers Association of America.  In a recent letter to the Appropriations Chair they communicated their support for the suspension of the restrictions,  “These two new restrictions have placed economic hardships on thousands upon thousands of employers, as well as reducing drivers’ wages throughout the motor carrier industry,” the groups wrote.

I am sure the families of all those involved, injured or killed in this weekend’s crash will tell you that the sanctity of life is far more important than rapidly moving product or making companies like Wal-Mart spend a few more dollars.

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