by David Cullen, FleetOwner

Not even a week ago, trucking advocates were upbeat about traction gained in the U.S. Senate to suspend changes to the restart provisions within the Hours-of-Service (HOS) regulations that were implemented almost a year ago.

But less than two full days after a Senate committee voted to block enforcement funding for those restart rules, a tragic crash occurred on the New Jersey Turnpike that might stall, if not halt altogether, any further momentum to roll back the current HOS restart rules.

At 1 am on June 7, per a report posted by The New York Times, a Walmart tractor-trailer “slammed into the back” of a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter limo-van whose passengers included actor-comedian Tracy Morgan. The force of the impact overturned the van and the accident ultimately involved four other vehicles.

“When emergency workers arrived, Mr. Morgan was critically injured, and another comedian, James McNair, was pronounced dead at the scene. Two other comedians and Mr. Morgan’s assistant were injured,” reported The Times.

On the same day of the crash, the Middlesex County (NJ) Prosecutor’s Officer announced that the Walmart driver, Kevin Roper, 35, of Jonesboro, GA, had been charged with “one count of death by auto and four counts of assault” as a result of the accident.

A criminal complaint released yesterday by the Middlesex prosecutor stated that at the time of the wreck, Roper had been driving his truck “without having slept for a period in excess of 24 hours resulting in a motor vehicle accident.”

Walmart was quick to take exception to that development: “With regards to news reports that suggest Mr. Roper was working for 24 hours, it is our belief that Mr. Roper was operating within the federal hours of service regulations,” said Walmart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan in a statement issued yesterday.

“The details are the subject of the ongoing investigation and we are cooperating fully with the appropriate law enforcement agencies,” Buchanan continued. “The investigation is ongoing and unfortunately we can’t comment further on the specifics. Federal law requires drivers to work no more than 14 hours for any shift and 11 hours of driving.”

And while the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) typically doesn’t look into motor-vehicle accidents, this one has garnered the board’s attention according to a Bloomberg.com news post,

NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway stated, per Bloomberg, that “There were multiple vehicles involved, so we would like to see what issues are at play in this accident… As in all investigations, we will look at the work/rest schedule of the drivers.”

Not surprisingly, the reported circumstances of the crash lend fresh impetus to highway-safety advocates and others committed to seeing the current mandatory restart and rest-period rules of the HOS reg kept in place.

For starters, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ general president James P. Hoffa yesterday sent a letter to members of the U.S. House of Representatives urging them to oppose any floor amendments to the Transportation Housing and Urban Development (THUD) FY ’15 Appropriations bill that “will weaken highway safety standards by “delaying, revising or replacing” the current Hours of Service 34-hour restart provision or that would allow increases in truck size and weight.

“The tragic accident that claimed the life of comedian James McNair and injured many others, including actor Tracy Morgan, could have been prevented had Walmart’s driver been properly rested rather than reportedly going 24 hours without a break,” Hoffa wrote.

“While the notoriety of the victims in this accident pushed truck safety to the front page, more than 4,000 lives are claimed each year on our highways as a result of accidents involving trailer trucks,” he continued. We must ensure that Hours of Service rules provide enough rest for drivers so cumulative fatigue doesn’t put the driving public at risk.”

Hoffa went on to say that “Not all motor carries run their drivers to the limit of their Hours-of-Service, but it does happen. Drivers feel pressure from their employers to drive more than 60 to 70 hours a week with insufficient rest… [and] these drivers are left with no recourse and the resulting fatigue leads to accidents.”

Highway-safety activist Joan Claybrook, president emeritus of Public Citizen and a former Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, weighed in yesterday on the trucker-fatigue issue during a call with journalists.

Claybrook said, per a HuffingtonPost.com article, that she was "extremely disturbed" by the Senate amendment passed last week to defund the HOS rest requirements.

The online post also reported Claybrook as stating, "This is a major moment, really, to stop the trucking industry from using its major clout,” assumedly referencing the backlash to reforming HOS in light of last week’s crash.

"It seems no matter what we do, in terms of pushing to get safer trucks on the road, the trucking industry uses its clout to undo those improvements or stop any ones we push,” she reportedly said.

The American Trucking Assns. (ATA) has also made its position clear on this issue, via a detailed statement issued today by its president & CEO, Bill Graves.

Acknowledging that the “issue of highway safety, and in particular the safety of the trucking industry, has been at the forefront of the national conversation for several days due to a high-profile incident in New Jersey,” ATA’s Graves said he wanted to “address several issues regarding the hours-of-service rules and driver fatigue generally.

“The Hours-of-Service rules– whether they are the current regulations, the pre-2013 rules, or the rules with changes we hope to see as a result of Congressional action– only place limits on driving and on-duty time and require that between work periods drivers take a minimum of 10 consecutive hours off-duty,” Graves stated.

“But they do not dictate what drivers do during that off-duty period,” he continued. “No rule can address what a driver does in his or her off-duty time.”

Graves also argued that since “good public policy and good regulations stem from good research and good data,” ATA supports suspending the “controversial and unjustified restrictions on use of the Hours-of-Service restart provision, which alters driver sleep patterns and puts more trucks on the road during more risky daylight hours.”

He pointed out as well that is “also why we support mandatory use of electronic logging devices [ELDs] to track drivers' compliance” with HOS. [And] it is why we support more aggressive enforcement of traffic laws to combat distracted and aggressive driving as well as restricting the speeds of large trucks to 65 mph with mandatory electronic speed governors.”

Graves wrapped up by contending that fatigue is an important safety issue, but it’s “a causal factor in less than 10% of all truck crashes and ATA believes we need to do far more to address the other 90% of crashes."