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Tracy Morgan’s Truck Accident Ignites Safety Debate

The truck accident that seriously injured Tracy Morgan and killed a fellow comedian has fueled an already simmering debate about truck safety in the U.S.

Tracy Morgan, a comedian best known for his work on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” was riding in a limo bus with several others on the New Jersey Turnpike when a truck rear-ended their vehicle. Morgan and three other people were critically injured. Another comedian was killed.

According to news reports, police said that the truck driver had been awake for more than 24 hours and simply did not notice traffic slowing in front of him. He swerved, but still hit the bus. The driver was charged with vehicular homicide and assault by auto. In New Jersey, an accident can result in criminal charges if the driver had been without sleep for 24 hours.

The truck accident has raised questions about whether the driver was in compliance with federal driving regulations and reignited a longstanding debate about how to improve truck safety in the U.S.

Why Was The Driver Awake For 24 Hours?

Immediately at issue in the case was whether the driver was following federal rest requirements for truck drivers. Since July 2013, drivers have been limited to 14-hour workdays with a maximum of 11 hours actually driving. In addition, drivers are required to have at least 10 hours off to sleep between shifts.

Although the driver is accused of staying awake for 24 hours, Wal-Mart, the driver’s employer, said it believed he was in compliance with federal regulations. According to media sources, the criminal complaint does not specify whether the driver was working when he is alleged to have been awake for 24 hours. If he was working, were his logbooks accurate? If he was not working, why was the driver awake for that long? State and federal investigations may shed light on what happened.

Regulators Have Tightened Rest Restrictions

These lingering questions and the high-profile nature of the accident hit a nerve across the nation. A former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) called the accident “a major moment really to stop the trucking industry.”

Partly because of their mass, trucks are particularly dangerous in vehicle accidents. According to the NHTSA, 3,921 people were killed in accidents involving large trucks in 2012. In total, 333,000 large trucks were involved in traffic accidents that year. According to news reports, driver fatigue is believed to be a major factor in crashes.

Because of those dangers, federal regulators and safety advocates have focused in recent years on improving the safety of trucks and truck drivers. The limits on hours of service are aimed specifically at reducing truck driver fatigue. The regulations took effect in July 2013 over opposition from the trucking industry.

On June 5, 2014, a Senate panel voted to block some provisions of the new rules, including requirements that truck drivers take breaks between 1 and 5 a.m. on consecutive nights before resuming work and that limit drivers from declaring more than one of these “restarts” per week. The sponsor of the amendment cited “unintended and unanticipated consequences,” saying the rules resulted in more drivers being on the road during the day.

It was unclear what effect Morgan’s accident might have on the Senate panel’s amendment.

Electronic Logbooks May Be Required

Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation is tackling another potential truck safety issue: logbooks. Drivers are required to log their hours and to provide the logs when asked by safety inspectors. Many write their hours on paper logs, creating a risk of inaccurate or forged reporting.

In March, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration proposed requiring drivers to use electronic logs instead. The agency said a final rule on electronic logs could come in spring 2015. The agency had previously proposed electronic logs in 2011.

Ensuring that truck drivers have adequate rest and keep accurate records may help reduce the danger of fatigued truck drivers. To truly improve safety, the trucking industry itself must also do its part to reduce pressures on drivers to cut corners and work long hours.