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Keep truckers alert [Editorial]

The horrific traffic crash last Saturday at 1 a.m. on the New Jersey Turnpike that killed one person and left comedian Tracy Morgan in critical condition at a hospital near Trenton calls attention to the danger of tired truck drivers. Investigators suspect the driver of a Walmart tractor-trailer had dozed off when he slammed into the back of the comedian's limousine bus which was returning to New York from a show in Dover, Del.

The exact circumstances are not entirely clear, and police have stressed that the incident remains under investigation. But the distinct possibility that fatigue may have been a factor in the accident should be sufficient to give lawmakers pause. As it happens, the Senate Appropriations Committee last week put language in a transportation funding bill that would suspend for one year regulations that limit truck driver hours on the road.

At issue is the 70-hour workweek adopted last year by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, particularly the so-called "restart" requirement that forces drivers to take at least 34 hours off, including staying off the road from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on consecutive days. Trucking industry officials complain that ending the rest period at 5 a.m. means more truckers are subsequently driving during rush hour, which slows down deliveries and traffic for everyone.

But it's also clear the trucking industry is not happy with most any rules that reduce the workweek (from the previous 82 hours) because they raise trucking costs. Even regulators acknowledge that the rules came with a hefty price tag — although they see improved public safety and trucker health as easily outweighing the estimated $470 million in added annual expenses.

What shouldn't be lost in this long-running debate is that the consequences of driver fatigue are serious. About 13 percent of truck crashes are thought to involve tired truck drivers — and that may be greatly understated as commercial drivers are often loath to admit they were nodding off when accidents take place. One thing that's certain is that truck-involved accidents are on the upswing in this country.

Since 2009, there has been a 19 percent increase in large truck crashes, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. With 10.7 million trucks on the road — and that number is growing as the nation's economy improves — the stakes are high. When big rigs are involved in collisions, they are far more likely to involve fatalities than other types of accidents. It's the inescapable result of physics and the effects of 80,000 pounds of tractor-trailer hurtling down the road.

That's not to cast truck drivers as villains; they are not that. But the industry demands much from its employees, and limiting work hours not only protects the motoring public but truck drivers themselves. Most trucking companies have had little trouble complying, and 85 percent of drivers don't even bump up against work rules, according to federal officials.

Anne Ferro, administrator of the FMCSA, estimates that the regulations save 19 lives and prevent approximately 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries yearly. That benefit would seem to easily outweigh concerns over whether trucks are getting stuck in morning rush hour traffic. The better question is whether the regulations go far enough to make sure drivers are getting sufficient rest and the public's safety is protected.

If the Senate wants the issue to be studied further (the amendment includes $4 million to do just that), that's fine. But we see no reason to suspend the rules while such an investigation is taking place. As it is, the regulations were developed only after years of study and legal wrangling, and lives should not be jeopardized while the issue is debated further.

Fortunately, Congress has time to make amends. The driver involved in Tracy Morgan's crash, Kevin Roper, 35, of Jonesboro, Ga. had not slept in the 24 hours before the accident, according to police who have charged him with vehicular homicide and three counts of assault by automobile. Surely, the prospect of putting more such drivers on the road ought to motivate the House and Senate to strike down this dangerous amendment before the legislation goes any further.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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