WASHINGTON (AP) — A New Jersey highway crash that severely injured Tracy Morgan and killed another comedian is drawing attention to the dangers of tired truckers just as the industry and its allies in Congress are poised to roll back safety rules on drivers' work schedules.
A proposed change to federal regulations backed by the trucking industry and opposed by safety advocates and the Obama administration would effectively let drivers put in as many as 82 hours a week behind the wheel. The current limit is either 60 hours or 70 hours a week, depending on the kind of company employing the driver.
The change was added to a transportation spending bill by a Senate committee last week.
Nearly 4,000 people die in large truck crashes each year, and driver fatigue is a leading factor, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety administration. The rate of fatal crashes involving large trucks rose from 1.03 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2009 to 1.29 in 2012.
The trucking industry has been sparring with safety advocates and unions over driver hours for two decades, including several trips to federal court. Safety advocates, while extending their sympathies to Morgan and the family of comedian James "Jimmy Mack" McNair, who was killed in the crash, said they hope that because a celebrity was involved in the accident it will boost their cause.
"This is a major moment really to stop the trucking industry," Joan Claybrook, a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told reporters in a conference call. "It seems no matter what we do in terms of pushing to get safer trucks on highways, the trucking industry uses its clout to either undo those improvements that we do get or stops any that we're trying to push."
Noting that truck safety was suddenly "at the forefront of the national conversation," Bill Graves, president of the American Trucking Associations, cautioned that "no rule can address what a driver does in his or her off-duty time. "