In the wee hours of Saturday morning, a sleep-deprived Walmart truck driver didn't see that traffic ahead in the northbound lanes of the New Jersey Turnpike had slowed down.
Days before Morgan's accident, the Senate approved legislation that would undo rules that mandated certain rest periods for truck drivers.
By the time he reacted, it was too late. One person was killed and four more were injured, including comic Tracy Morgan, in the six-vehicle crash that followed. Authorities said Monday the driver of the truck, Kevin Roper, 35, hadn't slept for 24 hours at the time of the accident.
Daphne Izer has heard this story before.
On October 10, 1993, a Walmart truck driver fell asleep behind the wheel and ran over a car containing her son, Jeff, and four of his friends. Jeff Izer and three others died. In her grief, she founded Parents Against Tired Truckers, an organization that lobbies lawmakers on transportation safety issues. She said Monday that not only are such crashes common, but they're poised to grow in number and severity.
Days before Morgan's accident thrust trucking safety into the news, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would undo rules that only went into effect last year that mandated certain rest periods for truck drivers. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) added an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill that would suspend a regulation that truck drivers rest for 34 consecutive hours, including two nights from 1:00 AM to 5:00 AM, before driving again.
"With one amendment, we're doing away with rules we worked years to develop," Izer said Monday.
The "re-start" rule was one of several that started last summer. Other rules limited the maximum average work week to 70 hours of driving time for truckers, which was 12 fewer hours than the previous maximum of 82. Another rule required drivers to take a 30-minute break during their first eight hours behind the wheel. The full Senate is slated to begin debate on the legislation as early as next Monday.
Separately, safety advocates say they're worried that, as part of ongoing debates over a multi-billion dollar bill that would fund surface transportation programs, the trucking industry will seek changes that allow for 33-foot trailers, a growth from today's 28-foot trailers, and force more states to accept double-trailers. Currently, only 11 states allow double and triple trailers.
Taken together, safety advocates say the two pieces of legislation amount to an assault on driver safety.
Fatalities and injuries related to traffic accidents involving trucks have increased for three consecutive years.
"We're fighting two really serious battles here," said Jackie Gillan, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "We're fighting to protect rest time and fighting against these longer trucks."
Fatalities and injuries related to traffic accidents involving trucks have increased for three consecutive years. Approximately 3,921 people were killed in crashes involving large trucks in 2012 and 104,000 more were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In those fatal crashes, the overwhelming majority of the fatalities occur in the cars: 98 percent of the deaths occur to car occupants, according to Advocates.
Ron Wood, a Naval Academy graduate who lives in Washington D.C., lost his mother, sister and three nephews in 2004 when a truck driver who had been driving for 35 consecutive hours crossed the median and hit their SUV head-on. He's been fighting for stricter regulation of the trucking industry ever since.
"My response to the Tracy Morgan truck crash is that it's been 10 years since my family was obliterated, and we're not any safer," he said Monday. "It makes me angry. I met with Senator Collins ... and told her how upset I was. ... This amendment can't pass. It pushes us backward in the safety community, and it's upsetting that we're losing people every day to these fatigued truck drivers."