Comedian Tracy Morgan in a 2009 photo by David Shankborn via Wikimedia Commons.
Our celebrity-driven culture means that the crash that critically injured comedian Tracy Morgan last weekend has resulted in a sharp spotlight on trucking safety, with all sorts of people who don't understand a thing about our industry or the rules that govern it chiming in.
The Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock veteran was critically injured, and a fellow comedian was killed, when a tractor-trailer driver crashed into their Mercedes limousine last weekend, triggering a six-car pileup on the New Jersey Turnpike.
According to a criminal complaint, the driver had not slept in more than 24 hours. Under New Jersey law, a driver can be convicted if there's proof he had been without sleep for 24 hours when the accident occurred.
In a case of really bad timing, last week the Senate Appropriations Committee voted by a wide margin to suspend the current 34-hour restart provision of the hours of service rule while the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration studies the impact of the rule.
In effect, the amendment would suspend the two-night rest requirement and the once-a-week limitation on the restart while a study compares the work schedules and fatigue of two groups of drivers: those operating under the pre-2013 provision, and those operating under the new provision.
In the wake of the Tracy Morgan crash, editorials have characterized the move as a "gutting" of safety regulations, a "rollback," and "undermining" federal regulations requiring drivers to rest. Some articles make it sound as if the move totally would remove ANY hours of service regulations.
Anne Ferro, FMCSA Administrator, hasn't helped the misconceptions. In an article posted on the DOT website before the Tracy Morgan crash, "Congress Shouldn’t Roll Back Safety; the Steps We’ve Taken Keep Tired Truckers off the Road," she uses the term, "suspending the current Hours-of-Service safety rules" and cites numerous tragic accidents without any proof that the newest version of the rules would have actually changed anything.
Bill Graves, in an op-ed piece in USA Today, pointed out:
For a decade, America's truck drivers delivered the vast majority of our nation's freight with the ability to restart their workweeks by taking at least 34 consecutive hours off. This simple and enforceable rule contributed to a 22% decline in truck-involved fatalities between 2003 and 2012, even as trucks drove over 50 billion more miles.
In the face of this safety improvement, federal regulators imposed changes in 2013 without doing required research into what would happen if they limited restarts to once a week and required the off-duty period to include two stretches between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.
Overlooked in all this is whether these rules could have prevented the accident in question. We don't have a lot of details about what the police found to indicate the driver was awake for 24 hours before the crash, but it's pretty safe to say that the driver's actions would have violated the spirit, if not the letter, of any version of the hours of service regulations, dating back to the original ones from the 1930s.
According to a criminal complaint, Walmart truck driver Kevin Roper, 35, of Jonesboro, Ga., was operating the truck “recklessly,” and “without having slept for a period in excess of 24 hours.”
However, in a statement, Wal-Mart said it believes Roper was operating "within the federal hours of service regulations."
That's right. Operating within those new regulations that everyone is complaining about being potentially "rolled back."
At this writing, we don't know the details. Maybe Roper had insomnia and couldn't sleep during his required rest period. Maybe he was up all night dealing with some crisis at home. Even if he was in his sleeper berth as required by the regs, the regulations cannot force him to sleep.
As ATA's Graves said in a statement:
The hours-of-service rules – whether they are the current regulations, the pre-2013 rules, or the rules with changes we hope to see as a result of Congressional action – only place limits on driving and on-duty time and require that between work periods drivers take a minimum of 10 consecutive hours off-duty. But they do not dictate what drivers do during that off-duty period. No rule can address what a driver does in his or her off-duty time.
Or, maybe he faked his logbook. No matter what the regulations are, some drivers will ignore them. That's why ATA is pushing for mandatory electronic hours of service logs.
We just don't know at this point. Neither does Joan Claybrook, the USA Today editorial board, or the many pundits who have weighed in.
One thing's for certain – those in the industry pushing for some relief from the new 34-hour restart rules are going to have a lot harder time making any headway on Capitol Hill.
HOS Restart in Spotlight on Capitol Hill
Video: Two Fleet Leaders Talk About New Hours of Service
On the Road Blog: When Compliance Doesn't Equal Safety