At the wheel around the clock

June 11, 2014

Elizabeth Schulte looks at the backdrop to the deadly turnpike crash in New Jersey.

THE HORROR of the accident scene was etched on Tyrone Gale's face as he described desperately trying to help passengers after the limo bus he was driving was hit by a Walmart 18-wheel truck on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Comedian and TV star Tracy Morgan was critically injured in the crash, along with three other passengers, and fellow comedian James McNair was killed. The limo was taking the group back to New York after a performance in Delaware when it was rear-ended by the truck. "I climbed around and heard Tracy screaming for help," Gale told ABC News. "I climbed up on the body of the limo bus...but I couldn't reach them."

The driver of the truck, Kevin Roper from Jonesboro, Ga., faces a charge of death by auto and four counts of assault by auto. Police say Roper may have dozed behind the wheel after having not slept "for a period in excess of 24 hours," according to the criminal complaint against him--and thus not seen the traffic in front of him slow down.

Walmart's response to the tragedy was quick--and evasive. "If it's determined that our truck caused the accident, Walmart will take full responsibility," said Walmart President and CEO Bill Simon.

The Walmart truck after the New Jersey Turnpike crash
The Walmart truck after the New Jersey Turnpike crash

Simon may as well have added, "But if we find that the truck driver was at fault, well, we take no responsibility at all--and his life is ruined."

A Walmart spokesperson also said the company believed the driver was working within federal regulations, which prohibit workers from driving more than an 11-hour shift.

Dave Osiecki, vice president of the American Trucking Associations, a trucking bosses' advocacy group, coldly added his two cents, saying that no regulations can prevent a driver from making "bad choices."

IN FACT, a bone-tired driver behind the wheel of an 80,000-pound truck isn't something that happened just once this week. It happened an untold number of times, just as it does every week of the year.

Walmart and the trucking bosses can try to scapegoat individual drivers for their "bad choices," but the blame for this tragedy belongs squarely with the people who have been chipping away at safety rules, working conditions and wages in trucking--the trucking bosses themselves, and their allies among Washington legislators.

Just days before the Turnpike crash, the U.S. Senate was discussing whether to suspend a less-than-year-old regulation that limited the number of hours a long-haul truck driver could be behind the wheel per week without an extended break. The regulations, adopted in July 2013, decreased the cap from 82 to 70 hours a week.

Now, the Senate Appropriations Committee--with the support of the American Trucking Associations--is proposing an amendment to a larger transportation funding bill to relax the rules that gave drivers with a short workweek. The trucking bosses are also taking issue with a provision that requires drivers who reach the 70-hour weekly limit to take off 34 hours, including a 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. period on two consecutive days.

Actually, the regulations that went into effect in July 2013 were a watered-down version of the original proposal, which called for time off from 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. on two consecutive days. Under the rules approved last year, drivers must also take a 30-minute rest break after eight consecutive hours of driving--that was watered down from the original proposal that stipulated seven hours.

After a five-year decline previously, the rate of fatal truck crashes increased nationwide between 2009 and 2012. In 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, truck crashes caused 3,912 deaths.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, if the regulations adopted in 2013 are maintained without the reversal under consideration in the Senate, it would prevent 1,400 truck-involved crashes a year, save 19 lives and stop more than 500 injuries.

But the trucking industry--and politicians like Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) who represent them--are more concerned about the bottom line than their drivers endangering themselves and others by working without sufficient sleep.

Any job would be difficult with just half an hour of down time for every eight hours on the clock. Imagine the stress of driving a huge vehicle on busy highways. Then add the possibility of an 82-hour workweek, and it's a disaster waiting to happen. "At 70 hours a week, truck driving continues to resemble sweatshops on wheels," said Daphne Izer, who founded Parents Against Tired Truckers after her 17-year-old son and three of his friends were killed in a crash.

THE LAST thing the trucking industry needs is fewer regulations--the current rules already encourage drivers to put safety second, in the interests of the corporate bottom line.

For example, many truckers aren't covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which guarantees overtime pay after a 40-hour workweek. If drivers could expect to be compensated fairly for all the time they work--including overtime--they wouldn't be forced to continue driving after an already long week.

According to Michael Belzer, in his Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation: "An overtime premium also would create disincentives for employers thinking about making employees work every hour permitted by the law--or human endurance. We have restricted the safety focus to the single issue of 'fatigue,' as if drivers are automatons that needed an electric shock to keep functioning."

Also, it's a common practice not to pay drivers for all of their work time--time spent waiting for loading, unloading and breakdowns is off the clock. As Belzer points out:

Drivers who don't get paid for non-driving time have an incentive to falsify their log books and work more hours than is legal or safe...This unrecorded work time allows drivers to work longer hours than the law allows, probably contributing to unsafe highways and the premature destruction of drivers' health. They sweat their own labor by hiding these work hours.

The trucking bosses will do everything they can to blame Kevin Roper for the tragedy on the New Jersey Turnpike. But the truth is that unsafe working conditions for truckers and dangerous highways for all of us go hand in hand.

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