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Tracy Morgan

Comedian Tracy Morgan was critically injured over the weekend when the vehicle he was riding in was struck by a semi truck and trailer.  The trucking crash has put a spotlight on the dangers of tired truck drivers as reports suggest the semi truck driver who caused the crash had not slept in more than 24 hours.

[The truck driver] was operating a truck “on the New Jersey Turnpike without having slept in excess of 24 hours,” according the complaint filed in Middlesex County Court.

The driver was due to appear in court on Wednesday to face a charge of vehicular homicide and three counts of assault by auto, court documents show.

– David Jones at Reuters via Huffington Post

The accident in which Morgan was injured and comedian James (“Jimmy Mack”) McNair was killed occured at 1:00 in the morning.  Traffic had slowed on the New Jersey Turnpike and truck driver Kevin Roper failed to notice the slow traffic ahead and drove into the rear of the limousine Morgan and other comedians were in.

Truck driver fatigue long been an issue in the trucking industry.  New federal regulations – which took effect in 2013 – limit truck drivers to 11 hours of driving during a 14 hour work day and limit drivers to a maximum of 70 hours of driving per week.  Drivers who are tired, fatigued, or drowsy have a responsibility to pull over and rest regardless of whether or not they are within the hours of service requirements.

Amazingly, the US Senate moved just days ago to weaken trucker fatigue rules.

[T]he tragedy is likely to highlight a move by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week to undermine a federal regulation mandating truck driver rest.

Last week, the committee passed an amendment that would suspend a requirement that truck drivers rest for at least 34 consecutive hours — including two nights from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. — before beginning their next work week.

The so-called “restart” regulation was among a number of changes that took effectlast summer with the aim of reducing driver fatigue.

The new rules also limit the maximum average work week for truck drivers to 70 hours, a decrease from the previous maximum of 82 hours, and require drivers to take a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a shift.

The measure was pushed by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). As Bloomberg notes, it still needs to be adopted by the full Senate and reconciled with appropriations legislation drawn up in the House.

Just Days Before Tracy Morgan Accident, Senate Moved To Weaken Trucker Fatigue Rules [Melissa Jeltsen at Huffington Post]

Anne Ferro, Administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) rebuked senators for voting to roll back the safety requirements, noting that truck driver fatigue is a leading factor in commercial vehicle crashes.

“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.”

– Anne Ferro, FMCSA Administrator

Excessive on-duty times create substantial safety problems as tired truck drivers can be forced by their employers to operate a tractor trailer for excessive amounts of time. Too often, otherwise safe and professional truck drivers are pushed by their companies to log more hours in less time over longer and longer stretches of highway. The system is stacked against truck drivers because the corporations that make millions off of the driver’s hard work and shifts all of the burdens and risks onto the driver.

A Journal of Public Health article found that nearly two-thirds of drivers routinely violated rest guidelines for financial reasons.

When violators were asked for common reasons for driving more than 10 hours in one day, which can be legal in some circumstances, one-third (283) cited tight schedule, 31 percent (260) cited needing the money, 12 percent (98) cited traffic jams and 10 percent (87) cited inclement weather.

I’ve said many times: Most truck drivers are safe, courteous professionals. For some though, the pressure of bearing many of the financial risks of truck driving is just too much. Trucking companies transfer many financial risks onto the driver by paying the driver by the mile, rather than by the hour. This pay methods puts all of the risks of delays – by weather, construction, traffic, or mechanical problems – on the driver. In some instances the trucking company even schedule the driver to operate more miles than can safely be traveled during hours of service limits.  These industry pressures too often lead to lapses in judgment and cutting corners on safety.

Too many hours behind the wheel and lead to dangerous fatigue in truck drivers. The U.S. DOT published the Driver Fatigue and Alertness Study, which found that truck driver fatigue is the leading factor in heavy truck accidents. But safer restrictions on time behind the wheel are necessary if we’re really going to respond to the problem as a nation.

Medical research shows that most people require 7 ½ to 8 hours of sleep a day. But the Driver Fatigue and Alertness Study states that the average truck driver gets 4.8 hours of sleep. It goes without saying that this minimal amount of rest may lead to sleep deprivation and driver fatigue.

The Need For Greater Trucking Industry Insurance Coverage

The crash also highlights the push for greater minimum insurance requirements for commercial trucking companies.  It has been well-publicized that truck driver Kevin Roper was working for Wal-Mart at the time of the crash.  Certainly, Wal-Mart has sufficient assets to cover the full damages and costs stemming from the crash – and, in fact, Wal-Mart has publicly said it is “profoundly sorry” for the crash and would “take full responsibility” if it is determined that its truck caused the crash.

But what if the truck driver worked for “Mom and Pop Truck Co.”?  Could a small, independent trucking company cover the damages caused in this crash?  Probably not.

Currently, trucking and shipping companies must carry only $750,000 in liability insurance, which is grossly inadequate to meet the costs of many crashes – including the crash that injured Tracy Morgan.  The FMCSA has reported to Congress that the minimum insurance requirements should be increased.

Currently, trucking companies are split on the proposal.  Generally, larger trucking companies who already maintain larger insurance policies have supported the proposal.  Small and less financial stable insurance companies – typically, those that need increased insurance limits the most – have remained opposed to the proposed increase.

According to the Insurance Journal, the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) found that liability awards in large truck crashes that result in death or catastrophic injury can reach $10 million or more.  PIRE has recommended a minimum limit of $10 million in insurance for commercial trucking companies.  The Alliance for Driver Safety and Security (“the Trucking Alliance”) found that the current $750,000 limit is inadequate for nearly half of all trucking crashes.

The American Trucking Association and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) have lobbied against any increased insurance requirement.

The American Association for Justice (AAJ), arguing on behalf of truck crash victims, has recommended gradually increasing the insurance requirement to $4.4 million in order to account for more than 30 years of inflation.  AAJ has noted that the low limits encourage some carriers to discharge liability in bankruptcy when faced with damages above their coverage limit and then simply restart operation under a new corporate identity.

© Copyright 2014 Brett A. Emison

Follow @BrettEmison on Twitter.

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