You can make a truck driver rest, but you can’t make him sleep

Following the weekend crash in New Jersey that killed comedian James McNair and seriously injured Tracy Morgan, the drumbeat for cracking down on truckers has struck a new chord. Safety groups and politicians have filled the airwaves and mainstream media outlets with the dire warnings of more crashes and deaths to come because of the roadway dangers posed by overtired truckers.

It’s a great theory, but one that, at this point, doesn’t seem to apply in this case. As the investigation unfolds, things may change as the authorities learn more about Walmart driver Kevin Roper, 35, who the Middlesex County (NJ) Prosecutor’s Officer has charged  with “one count of death by auto and four counts of assault” as a result of the accident.

According to the prosecutor, Roper had been driving his truck “without having slept for a period in excess of 24 hours.”

Safety advocates were quick to jump on that statement and point out how the federal hours-of-service regulations, which limit drivers to 11 hours drive time and 14 hours of work time, were failing the American public, resulting in mayhem and death on our highways.

Walmart issued a statement to counter the growing public perception that Roper had been working for 24 hours. “With regards to news reports that suggest Mr. Roper was working for 24 hours, it is our belief that Mr. Roper was operating within the federal hours of service regulations,” said Walmart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan in the statement.

Let’s never let facts interfere with our agenda. But if we can take advantage of a celebrity to raise the public’s ire, so be it. That is what is going on here.

By no means am I trying to diminish the lives of anyone involved in this tragic incident – a life was lost and others have been changed, perhaps forever – but the reality is that every day in America there is an accident involving a tractor-trailer.

In fact, according to a February 2013 American Trucking Assns. report entitled, “Relative Contribution/Fault in Car-Truck Crashes,” in 2009, there were 3,380 people who died as a result of a crash involving a commercial vehicle. The majority of those received no more press coverage than a single story in the local newspaper – in many cases the focus was probably on how rush-hour traffic was disrupted.

The same report noted that the fatal crash rate for large trucks in 2009 was 1.04 per million vehicle miles traveled (MVMT). What was it for cars? How about 1.02.

Not much difference. But we rarely have safety groups calling for auto drivers to spend less time on the roads and more time “resting.”

So why is this crash occupying social media sites, the nightly news and all the morning news shows? Because a celebrity is involved and for those groups wishing to crack down on drive time regulations, there is no better opportunity than the one that has just been presented.

The catch here, of course, is that there has been no indication so far that Roper was in violation of any federal driving regulations. So if he wasn’t in violation, than the rules could not be at fault by allowing a fatigued driver get on the road, could they?

Here’s another reality, that ATA president and CEO Bill Graves correctly pointed out: The rules stipulate how long drivers can work, they do not regulate how those same drivers should spend their time away from work.

According to the prosecutor, Roper had not slept in at least 24 hours. If true, and if that turns out to be the cause of this accident, that is not the fault of federal hours-of-service regulations. That is the fault of Roper and Roper alone.

No amount of regulation can prevent that.

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