It has been well documented by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), as well as countless independent studies, that fatigued driving is one of the most dangerous things a person can do. This danger is particularly serious for big rig commercial trucks because handling an 18-wheeler requires sharp reflexes and a huge amount of skill and attention. Driving while drowsy seriously impairs those abilities and can transform an 18-wheeler into a fatal force on the roads.
THE ALLEGED EVENTS OF THE ACCIDENT
At around 1:00am on the morning of Saturday, June 7th, comedian and actor Tracy Morgan was involved in an accident with a big rig commercial truck being driven by Kevin Roper for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. The accident caused Morgan’s Mercedes Sprinter limousine to flip over and collide with other vehicles. This crash left Morgan with serious injuries, including a broken leg, broken ribs, and a broken nose. It also critically injured his assistant, Jeffrey Miller, and fellow comedian, Ardie Fuqua Jr. Tragically, it killed 62-year-old James McNair, a third comedian who was riding in the limousine at the time of the accident.
Accidents involving celebrities are always high profile stories; however, this particular horrific event exemplifies a problem with more far-reaching consequences. It has been alleged that at the time of the accident the truck driver, Kevin Roper, had not slept for more than twenty-four hours. This would put him in direct violation of federal law, which mandates that truck drivers drive for no more than 11 hours during a maximum 14 hour shift. It further mandates that no truck driver exceed 70 service hours per week and that every time that maximum limit is reached a 34 hour restart period must be undertaken, during which time the trucker must be off the road between 1:00am and 5:00am on two consecutive days.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE ACCIDENT
Part of the reason this high profile incident is so important is because it comes at a time when the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has just passed an amendment that would suspend the mandatory 34 hour restart period. This could potentially undo a major, 15-year effort to tighten federal regulations and reduce the number of drowsy long-haul truckers on the road. It is also significant because not only is there speculation that the Kevin Roper and Tracy Morgan accident may have been caused by trucker fatigue, but the accident also occurred during the critical hours between 1:00am and 5:00am, which current FMCSA regulations identify as so critical.
The trucking industry has fought hard against the new required 34 hour restart period, which went into effect last July. The resistance on the part of the truck drivers is because more hours spent behind the wheel equals higher pay. Meanwhile trucking companies also have a stake in keeping truckers on the road longer to transport cargo more quickly and keep customers happy.
The legislation repealing the 34 hour restart period has not passed, however. While the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved it, it would still need to be passed by the full US Senate. It would also need to be reconciled with a similar version passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. The horrific accident involving Tracy Morgan is thus likely to become a talking point as the debate continues if it is determined that trucker fatigue was the proximate cause of the accident.
WAL-MART AND TRUCKERS RESPOND
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, has said that “It is our belief that Mr. Roper was operating within the federal hours of service regulations.” She further stated that as the investigation is ongoing they cannot comment on other specifics. However, Wal-Mart has also said that it takes full responsibility for the accident and that they are cooperating fully with law enforcement agencies.
Despite this serious incident and regardless of what is determined about Kevin Roper’s condition at the time of the accident, it should be noted that Wal-Mart has a fairly good safety record with regard to trucking accidents. The company owns 6,239 trucks with 7,222 drivers on the road. Its trucks clocked over 667 million miles this past year with 9 fatalities, 127 injuries, and 239 accidents that required towing. This put the company in the top 3% of safety compared to similarly sized trucking companies according to FMCSA.
Truckers as a whole also acknowledge the danger of driving while drowsy. One former trucker, Lew Grill, commented that, “You’ve got to be nuts to drive a truck after not sleeping for 24 hours.” Lew went on to compare driving an 18-wheeler on the heavily congested New Jersey Turnpike as being analogous to riding “an elephant with puppies running in and out of your feet,” and reiterated the need to maintain a safe following distance and remain alert.
If these sad events ultimately turn out to be due to sleepy driving they will further reiterate the dangers associated with truckers driving without adequate sleep. When truckers partake in this unsafe practice everyone on the road is in danger. If you or someone you love has been involved in an accident with a fatigued trucker it is important to protect your legal rights and seek justice. In Tracy Morgan’s case sources close to the actor have commented that his recovery will be long and arduous.