I’ve been mulling over the Tracy Morgan limo/semi crash, deciding what if anything to say. In case you’ve missed it a Wallmart semi driver probably dozed off before he ran into the back of comedian Tracy Morgan’s limo, killing Morgan’s friend Jimmy McNair, 62, and critically injuring Morgan, Jeffrey Millea, 36 and Ardie Fuqua, 43. You know Tracy Morgan from Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. Because Morgan is a celebrity the news media is beginning to ask the questions we’ve begged them to investigate for years: How does a semi driver not see traffic slowing in front of the truck? And ironically the crash came just days after the Senate passed an amendment to a big bill that would roll back some of the truck safety rules we’ve spent years getting made into law.
Let me explain.
Last summer, after years of study the Department of Transportation (DOT) came out with a rule that limited a truck driver’s work day to 14 hours, with only 11 of those hours actually driving. They took the work week down from 82 hours allowed to 70 hours in a 8 day work week, or 60 hours over a 7 days work period. Once a driver reaches those numbers he or she has to take a 34 consecutive hours off before starting a new one-week work period. That 34 hours has to include two overnight rest periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., back to back. This is called a ‘restart.’ And this is what the American Trucking Association (ATA) is fighting to get rolled back.
One television news reporter I saw wanted to make clear that the ATA only wanted this restart portion of the new rules withdrawn…they were fine with the 11 hours of driving a day. Well of course they are fine with the 11 hours, that didn’t change in the new rule. Years ago it used to be 10 hours of driving allowed in a day, but the Bush administration raised it to 11 hours. We at Truck Safety worked tirelessly trying to get the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to reduce the maximum number of drivings hours back to 10, but we lost. The FMCSA told us that their study did not show there was any reduction in crashes when reducing the maximum number of hours of driving from 11 to 10. We thought common sense would decree that driving 10 hours was safer than driving 11, but we lost that battle. Eventually we decided we didn’t care if the max number of hours a driver could drive was 10 or 11 as long as the FMCSA also put in place measures to ensure the enforcement of those hours. Which to us means the mandating of Electronic Recorders. But that’s another fight.
Back to the argument against the 34 hour restart. The ATA says that forcing drivers to stop driving for two consecutive nights means they have to drive during the day, inferring there will be more trucks on the roads when the rest of us are driving. But if you look at the data, the most dangerous time to be a driver in a personal vehicle prior to this rule change was the very early morning. Statistically that’s when many semi/car crashes occur. And when a semi and a car collide those in the car always loose. The ATA claims that the new rules were not supported by science, but we know that there were years of study that went into the rule. We know that because each year we were pushing for a rule to be issued and were told by the FMSCA that they were still studying the problem. The years of study were frustrating for us, necessary for them.
The Teamsters, a union that many truck drivers belong to, supports the new restart rule and points out that two night’s rest would not prevent a driver from driving overnight the rest of the week. Truck drivers themselves, some of whom were interviewed this week at truck stops tell stories of being pushed to drive longer hours to meet deadlines of the shippers. They say the reason they drive such long hours is to make a decent income. They get paid by the mile, not by the hour. So the more they drive, the more they make. And the more they rest the less they earn.
And there is the crux of the problem. We can argue forever about the correct maximum number of hours a person can drive without becoming tired. We can tweak the restart. We can study the issue. We can talk and cajole and cry and plead, holding pictures of our lost family members. But as long as the drivers are paid by the mile instead of by the hour there will always be the conflict between driving more and making a living or putting safety first and earning less. Our goal is to change the way truckers get paid, but the reality is that change is a long way off.
Meanwhile we have to work with what we have. Right now we are trying to persuade Senators to oppose the amendment when it comes up during a full Senate vote. And we have to work on members of the House as well, which will be even more difficult, when their version of this amendment comes up possibly as early as this week. We need to work to get this amendment taken out of the Senate Appropriation bill. If we don’t, years of work toward making our roads safer will be lost.
It’s sad that it takes a celebrity to make this news worthy. NBC Nightly News Monday night did a great report, correctly citing that about 11 people a day die and close to 100,000 people a year are injured in crashes with semis, You don’t hear about them because they are just individuals, not deemed important enough for national coverage. I know my dad’s crash earned two small paragraphs on an inside page of the local paper. Yet these people are as important to their families as Mr. Morgan is to his. Part of me chafes at using his experience to push our agenda into the public eye. But I also know we can’t squander this opportunity to educate people across the nation about truck safety issues.
I wish Morgan, Millea and Fuqua full recoveries. And I hold the family of McNair in my heart. I know that anguish and I want there to be less of it. That’s not a pipe dream. When we get word about the Senate and House votes we’ll be asking you to call your representatives, voice your opinion, help us move toward safer highways.
We can’t do it without all of you. Congress doesn’t listen unless the public makes a very big noise. We can do that together.