The timing could have hardly been worse. Two days after the U.S. trucking industry scored a rare Senate victory against last year’s revision to truck driver hours of service rules, a tractor-trailer slammed into a limousine van on the New Jersey Turnpike, killing comic James McNair and badly injuring his fellow comedian and TV star Tracy Morgan.
Unsurprisingly, the congressional backlash started mere hours after national media attention made the New Jersey Turnpike accident one of the leading stories over the June 7 weekend. To some unfamiliar with the intricacies of the new HOS rules and the trucking business, particularly those in the general news media, the connection was clear: New HOS rules would have prevented the crash.
I won’t weigh in on whether or not the restart rules need to be repealed. But, as a journalist, I grow uneasy when I see peers making judgment calls on tricky issues they aren’t familiar with and when legislators rush to respond after a high profile accident. Others, including me, would rather take a second look at what we know and wait until we fill in the gaps before rushing to conclusions.
What we do know is that the truck driver, Kevin Roper, had a clean driving record and was moving loads for a company that has one of the best safety records in trucking, Wal-Mart. (You can check Wal-Mart Transportation’s safety scores and inspection statistics at ai.fmsca.dot.gov.)
We don’t know whether Roper was in violation of HOS rules. Wal-Mart says they believe he was not. We also don’t know whether he got any sleep before getting behind the wheel.
New Jersey police said Roper failed to notice slowing traffic at about 1 a.m., swerved to avoid a crash and then hit Morgan’s limousine. Roper was awake 24 hours before the crash, a violation of New Jersey law, prosecutors say. Roper later denied that allegation (via Twitter) and pleaded not guilty to one charge of death by auto and four charges of assault by auto. He has not spoken to the press.
Either way, a truck driver’s decision to not rest before getting behind the wheel isn’t something federal regulators can crack down on — yet. And investigators haven’t yet determined whether fatigue was the cause or played a role in the crash.
“Unfortunately, we can’t control drivers during their downtime,” Penske Logistics President Marc Althen said during a transportation event in Washington. “We like them to take it easy and rest, but that’s not always what they do.”
Despite the lack of facts, many in the general media have either gotten the specifics of HOS wrong or insinuated a parallel between the Senate debate and the New Jersey accident, with some early reports insinuating Roper had been driving 24 hours — not just awake 24 hours.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection, nor are some media outlets wrong to challenge the trucking industry’s stance that the restart “forces” drivers onto the road during morning rush hour. In a similar vein, some highway safety advocates’ accusation that trucks are just “sweatshops on wheels” is wrong and unhelpful. The rhetoric from both sides hasn’t made it easier for legislators and the public to find a balance between safety and commerce.
What is more troubling is the knee-jerk reaction of many in Congress that speaks to their inability to understand HOS and desire for political points. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., wants federal regulators to get electronic logging devices into trucks within months, rather than under a roughly two-year timeline. Those devices will help regulators crack down on drivers who skirt HOS regulations, but it’s not clear how such devices would have prevented the N.J. crash, since the Wal-Mart truck already had one. Not to be left out, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., called for the Department of Transportation to review truck weight and driver fatigue requirements. A noble call, yes, but those requirements have been scrutinized and debated by safety advocates, truck proponents and members of Congress for years.
In light of the confusion, misinformation and high emotions on both sides, Congress would be wise to take a step back and consider the facts before leaping to conclusions about the New Jersey accident and issuing new truck safety mandates.