By Matthew Wrobel. Foley Services
A crash on the New Jersey Turnpike that killed one man and critically injured “30 Rock” and “Saturday Night Live” star Tracy Morgan has thrown a national spotlight on fatigued driving. The accident occurred just as Congress was preparing to debate the hours of service regulations.
It started as just another accident on the New Jersey Turnpike, but by Saturday morning, the national spotlight was firmly upon it and the driver accused of causing it while fatigued. The accident, which killed one man, also critically injured Morgan. Within hours, the national news media was debating both the flaws and virtues of the hours of service regulations as well as the issue of driving while fatigued.
The facts of the case are as follows: Morgan, along with several other comedians and his entourage, was returning to New York City having performed in a Delaware casino. About 45 miles south of the city, in Cranberry Township, their luxury van was struck at high speed from behind by a tractor-trailer, overturning the van and setting off a chain reaction crash that involved four additional vehicles.
Comedian James McNair was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident. Morgan and his assistant, Jeff Millea, were both critically injured and had to be airlifted from the scene. Morgan, Millea and another comedian, Ardie Fuqua, remained in critical condition over the weekend.
Cause and Charges
Within hours of the crash, the cause was being listed as fatigued driving on the part of the truck driver. On Saturday evening, the driver of the tractor-trailer was charged with one count of death by auto and four counts of assault by auto. He was released from the Middlesex County jail on $50,000 bond, having turned himself in earlier in the day.
Prosecutors say the driver failed to brake for slow moving traffic ahead, and while he realized at the last moment and swerved, his tractor-trailer still hit Morgan’s van, causing the accident. The driver, who was not seriously injured, was driving the truck for Wal-Mart. The company has said that if it is determined that its vehicle caused the accident, it will take full responsibility.
Hours of Service Debate
Coincidentally, the accident occurred just after an attempt in Congress to weaken the hours of service regulations. A measure in the Senate Appropriations Committee would roll back the requirement that drivers rest for 34 consecutive hours including two nights between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. before beginning the next workweek. The measure, which would need to be adopted by the full Senate and then reconciled with a House Appropriation Bill, was sponsored by Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins.
The effort to weaken the fatigued driving rule received immediate condemnation from members of the media. That is sure to frustrate both the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and the Owner Operator Independent Driver Association (OOIDA), both of whom have been lobbying heavily for the appeal.
Effect on Enforcement
The regulations and enforcement are often sculpted by media and Congressional attention. The “Passenger Carrier Crackdown” has been going on since a 2010 crash involving a bus drew the media spotlight.
So too does the media spotlight influence what Congress does and does not do. While Senator Collins’ measure was welcomed by many in the media, if the media criticism continues, the changes will likely die in committee. Either way, as with any high profile crash, drivers should expect increased enforcement out on the roads in the coming weeks.