By Annika McGinnis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate is wrestling over whether to repeal federal regulations that require truck drivers to take nighttime rest breaks, with some lawmakers arguing the rules have led to more daytime accidents while other says they are critical to relieving fatigue.
The perils of driver fatigue gained national attention earlier this month after a truck crashed into a limousine van carrying comedian Tracy Morgan on the New Jersey Turnpike, critically injuring Morgan and killing another passenger, comedian James "Jimmy Mack" McNair. The truck driver, Walmart employee Kevin Roper, had not slept for more than 24 hours, according to a criminal complaint filed in Middlesex County Court in New Jersey.
Under a federal law put in place last year, truck drivers must rest for at least 34 hours after working a 70-hour week, and the rest time -- known as the restart period -- must include two periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. to ensure truckers get adequate nighttime rest. The law also caps daily driving to 11 hours and requires a 30-minute break every eight hours.
Now, as a Senate transportation, housing and urban development appropriations bill comes up for debate with an amendment suspending the requirements on rest, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut are pushing to keep them in place.
"The goal is to cut carnage on the roads," Blumenthal told reporters on a conference call earlier this week.
But Senator Susan Collins, a Republican of Maine, and several trucker groups say the restart rules force truckers to drive during busy daytime hours, when more cars are on the road and they are more likely to get into accidents. Collins’s amendment would suspend the restart rules for a year while the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration conducts a study assessing their impact.
Forcing drivers off the roads in the early morning hours “simply pushes more driving to the hours where kids are going to school, when people are trying to get to work down the crowded highways,” Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat of Louisiana, said in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s June 5 markup of the amendment.
Many drivers are also used to working at night so the rules disrupt their sleep cycles, said Sean McNally, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, a trade group. He said lawmakers should be more concerned with issues of speed and distracted driving than fatigue.
In 2012, large-truck accidents killed about 4,000 people and injured more than 100,000 nationwide, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. In a 2006 Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration study, 65 percent of truck drivers reported they often or sometimes felt drowsy while driving. Almost half said they had fallen asleep at the wheel in the previous year.
For Ron Wood, of Washington, D.C., the perils of driver fatigue are all too real.
His sister, Lisa Wood Martin, was returning from an afternoon at Toys “R” Us with her three young children when a fatigued truck driver crashed into her SUV, killing her, her children and her mother, Wood told a press conference this week organized by the Truck Safety Coalition, which is working to maintain the rules on rest. The driver had been awake for 35 hours without rest, Wood said.
“Imagine a more violent and horrific way to destroy a young family,” he said.
(Editing by Caren Bohan and Leslie Adler)