In the days before the tragic semi-truck accident on the New Jersey Turnpike that killed comedian James McNair and critically injured SNL-alum Tracy Morgan, the trucking industry was lobbying Congress to undo limits on driver hours that had just been imposed last summer.
It’s still too early to know exactly what role fatigue might have played in this accident, but data shows the driver was near the existing federal limits.The National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report on the crash. The initial report is based on data gathered from the on-board computer that tracks a vehicle’s movements and speed.
Driver Was Close to Federal Limits
The federal driving rules that went into effect July 2013 allow a driver to be on the road for a maximum of 11 hours within a 14-hour work day. Information shows that the truck driver that caused this accident had been on the road for 13 hours, 32 minutes that day prior to the accident, just 28 minutes shy of the 14-hour limit. He had made deliveries in several states; which added up to a total driving time that day of 9 hours, 37 minutes, which is below the 11 hours allowed by federal limits.
The driver was also speeding 20 mph over the limit. It is alleged that he ignored or did not notice a sign posted a mile earlier with a warning that lanes were closed ahead for construction; another sign a half-mile further ahead slowed the speed limit from 55 mph to 45 mph, yet the on-board computer shows the driver was going 60 mph at the time of the crash. Still being looked at is the issue of how long the driver was awake and driving before he reported to work on that morning.
Industry Lobbying to Increase Driving Hours Allowed Despite Proven Risks
Fatigue is a serious and deadly problem in the trucking industry. Evidence shows that fatigue impairs the ability of a driver to see and respond to warning signs precisely like those involved in this case. Studies have proven that lengthy hours of monotonous driving can lead to drowsiness and impair a driver’s ability to make smart decisions and quick corrections.
The federal regulations issued last summer also required a certain amount of off-duty hours, required certain enforced breaks, and set a maximum average work week at 70 hours, which was down from the previous limit of 82 hours.
Not surprisingly, the trucking industry claims these limits constrain productivity and the ability of companies to effectively manage their inventories. Days before the deadly New Jersey Turnpike crash, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee had sided with the trucking industry and voted to roll back the hard-fought driving limits. The current FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro posted a blog criticizing Congress for attempting to roll back some of the new limits:
“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. Suspending the current Hours-of-Service safety rules will expose families and drivers to greater risk every time they’re on the road.”