The driver of the tractor-trailer on the New Jersey Turnpike that smashed into a limo bus in the early morning of June 7, 2014, seriously injuring Tracy Morgan and killing a fellow comedian, hadn’t slept in 28 hours.
The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash on driver fatigue and then added the issue to its list of most-wanted safety improvements. Congress demanded a study of truckers driving for hours before they even picked up their loads.
But nearly nine years later, addressing driver fatigue no longer appears on the safety board’s most-wanted list and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration responded to the congressional directive with a four-page report saying there was no data and it wasn’t going to do the research to get it.
And when the U.S. Department of Transportation issued its new safety strategy, it didn’t mention driver fatigue at all.
“Fatigue is a major issue,” said Harry Adler, principal of the Institute for Safer Trucking, an advocacy group. “Tired truckers are a danger not only to other people on the roads but they’re also a danger to themselves. That can’t be what we calculate as the cost of doing business.”
The focus on safety comes as deaths in accidents involving large trucks continue to rise. The number of people killed in truck crashes rose 10% during the first six months of 2022 over the previous year, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates released last month. That followed a 13% jump in 2021 over 2020.
Meanwhile, safety solutions that could reduce crashes have been ignored by the government and industry, NJ Advance Media reported in January 2021.
Driver fatigue was a contributing factor in 13 truck crashes investigated by the safety board since 2011, including the one that seriously injured Morgan and killed comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair.
The truck driver, Kevin Roper, hadn’t slept for more than 28 hours, in part because he drove 800 miles overnight from his home in Georgia to the distribution center in Delaware before getting behind the wheel of the Walmart truck, the safety board said.
Roper pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and four counts of aggravated assault in a plea deal that spared him time in prison.
Walmart reached a $10 million settlement with McNair’s two children and later settled with Morgan, a former “Saturday Night Live” cast member and “30 Rock” star, for an undisclosed amount. “I am grateful that the case was resolved amicably,” Morgan said in a statement.
Morgan suffered a broken leg, nose and several ribs, and was in a coma for two weeks.
He told radio host Howard Stern in August 2016 that the crash turned him into “an emotional wreck.”
“I thought about suicide, man,” Morgan told Stern. “I was that damaged in the hospital, man. I didn’t want to live.”
Requests for comment to Morgan’s lawyer and the talent agency that represents him went unanswered.
The safety board added requiring drivers to get adequate rest as one of its most-wanted safety improvements in 2016. But driver fatigue was removed from the 2021 list. Officials said at the time that they wanted to focus on issues more likely to be acted upon quickly.
“While the NTSB Most Wanted List does not directly list fatigue, the NTSB continues to seek solutions to prevent and mitigate driver fatigue and the severe consequences of this problem,” said Kristin Poland, deputy director of the safety board’s Office of Highway Safety.
Also in response to the crash, federal lawmakers ordered the safety agency that regulates trucks to study long commutes by truck drivers when they renewed road, bridge, railroad and transit programs in 2015. The provision was added to the bill by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.
The agency produced a four-page report, saying that there was no data available, that trying to link safety and long commutes would be “a major undertaking,” and that they only interviewed carriers, some of which said discussions about the issue could make them “vulnerable in post-crash litigation.”
“If companies are telling the federal agency that oversees them that they don’t want to discuss it because of litigation, that’s a big red flag,” said Shaun Kildare, senior director of research for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, health, law enforcement and insurance industry groups.
Booker said the federal motor carrier agency should collect the data needed “to understand the prevalence of extremely long commutes and quantify their effect on safety.”
“Truck drivers are working long days to deliver the goods we depend on, and we know driver fatigue is a leading cause of truck accidents,” Booker said. “Extremely long commutes — like the one that preceded the 2014 crash on the New Jersey Turnpike that tragically took a life and seriously injured many others — are likely to increase driver fatigue and heighten the safety risks to truck drivers and other motorists.”
The federal motor carrier administration did not respond to several requests for comment.
Safety advocates said the paucity of information in the report meant the government wasn’t taking driver fatigue seriously.
“This, unfortunately, is a very long-standing pattern at FMCSA of failing to address one of the leading causes of fatal truck crashes and that is driver fatigue,” said Peter Kurdock, general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “The agency just throws its arms up in the air after they do a de minimis type of action. The response is incredibly disappointing.”
And Zach Cahalan, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition, called the report “research malpractice.”
“It seems to me one would also want to talk to the actual drivers as well as victims of large crashes whereby long commutes could have been a factor,” Cahalan said, adding that the agency “made a deliberate decision to only speak with large employers who have clear incentive to defend their existing hiring and safety practices.”
Driver fatigue wasn’t mentioned at all in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new safety strategy to eliminate deaths on the nation’s highways, which left out several recommended actions to reduce fatalities in truck crashes.
“It [fatigue] still exists and it still involves people being killed and injured in a preventable way,” Adler said. “Somebody doesn’t need to be tired and operating a truck.”
The safety plan, though, does call for new rules requiring automatic emergency braking on new heavy trucks, technology long sought by safety advocates.
On the one-year anniversary of the safety strategy’s release, the Transportation Department said it was moving ahead with a rule to require the use of speed limiting devices in trucks weighing more than 26,000 pounds and was working on the rule to require automatic braking systems.
The federal government first agreed in 2015 to look at requiring automatic emergency braking, and Congress mandated such systems be installed in heavy trucks in President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law.
The safety board in January renewed its push for such safety equipment by keeping it on its current list of most-wanted safety improvements.
“Advanced technologies such as collision avoidance (automatic emergency braking) and connected vehicle technology (vehicles talking to each other, other roadway users, and the roadway infrastructure) can alert a driver to potential hazards ahead and can brake to avoid a crash or reduce speeds when a driver doesn’t respond to an imminent hazard,” Poland said.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Jonathan D. Salant may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at @JDSalant.
If you purchase a product or register for an account through one of the links on our site, we may receive compensation.