Truck drivers are only supposed to drive 11 hours a day, but the New Jersey crash that killed one person and severely injured comedian Tracy Morgan on Saturday showed how poorly that federal law has been enforced. Prosecutors say the truck driver, 35-year-old Kevin Roper, had been awake for more than 24 hours when he plowed his Walmart tractor-trailer into the limo bus carrying Morgan and several other comedians, including James McNair, who was killed.
While details of the crash are still emerging, violations of the 11-hour rule appear to be rampant in the trucking industry — often with a wink or a nudge from managers worried about tight deadlines. A trucker charged in January with killing a highway worker and state police officer in Illinois had been on duty for 36 hours. In February, a Connecticut trucking company manager was sentenced to 14 months in prison for falsifying log books used to keep track of hours and instructing drivers to fake them.
Two recent steps proposed by the Obama administration might help keep some dangerously fatigued drivers off the road. The administration has proposed levying fines of up to $11,000 on employers who pressure drivers into safety violations. In response to a 2012 directive from Congress, the administration also proposed further restricting the use of paper logs, which are easier to falsify, and mandating use of electronic log book devices instead. Representatives of truck drivers are resisting the rules and have gone to court to block similar efforts in the past, but those rules should be adopted.
It’s possible that neither of those safeguards would have prevented Saturday’s crash, but unfortunately there are plenty of others. According to federal statistics, 3,921 people died in crashes involving large trucks in 2012. Even in Massachusetts, where trucks accounted for a smaller percentage of fatal accidents than in any other state, 14 large trucks were involved in fatal collisions that year. All motorists should hope the new rules go into effect, and keep tired truckers off the road.