MIDDLETOWN — The June 7 accident on the New Jersey Turnpike that killed one person and injured comedian Tracy Morgan and several others should have been a wake-up call for Congress, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Friday.
“There is no question that seriously fatigued truck drivers are a danger to themselves and others,” Blumenthal said during a news conference at the Middletown Rest Area on I-91.
Over a three-year period, the number of crashes on the roads has risen 40 percent and the number of fatalities in those crashes has risen 18 percent, Blumenthal said, adding that fatigued truck drivers are a danger to themselves and others.
The current regulations to combat trucker fatigue had reduced the 82-hour work week to 70 hours. Drivers also are required to rest 34 consecutive hours before starting a new work week. During this “restart” period, drivers must have at least two periods of consecutive rest from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. The rule also requires drivers to wait 168 hours before taking another 34-hour reset to avoid being able to fit in 82 hours of work instead of the required 70.
Blumenthal said that these regulations should not be rolled back, but instead should be preserved and even tightened.
However, two weeks ago, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to suspend the 168-hour requirement and the 34-hour “restart” period, including the two nights rest.
The amendment passed 21-9. The Senate could start debating the more relaxed regulations as early as next week.
“This week, we are saying ‘no’ to a rollback. Let’s say ‘yes’ to truck safety,” Blumenthal said.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy said this is about protecting commuters, drivers, and truckers.
“Sixty percent of truck drivers say they are drowsy after the 10th hour,” Murphy said.
He cited several studies that have shown that the 11th hour is the hour at which truckers are in the most danger of falling asleep at the wheel.
By 2020, there will be a 20-percent increase in vehicles and trucks on the road, according to Murphy. He said that there is no other explanation for truck-related crashes and fatalities other than the trucking industry’s desire to increase profits by forcing truckers to drive longer hours.
“Next week, we have to take up an amendment that will strip these provisions out of the bill,” Murphy said.
A June 3-5 safety check in Connecticut found that 16 truckers were falsely logging their hours, 49 had no record of duty status, and 28 had violated the rules that are in place today. In total, 56 drivers were cited for 159 violations, according to Lt. Don Bridge, commanding officer of Department of Motor Vehicle commercial safety division.
“Fatigue is very difficult to determine,” Bridge said, adding that fatigue is very subjective and based upon the observations of an officer.
“We are not trying to take truckers off the road. We’re trying to take tired truckers off the road,” Blumenthal said.
Rachel Ann Menses, a Glastonbury resident and survivor of a 2011 accident caused by a fatigued trucker, retold her story in an effort to urge support for safer roads.
Menses was a passenger in a vehicle on the New Jersey Turnpike that crashed into a caravan holding kayaks and canoes around 2:30 a.m. A fatigued truck driver had crashed into the caravan.
“The truck driver that caused these life-altering events was operating a vehicle with 13 hours over the legal limit of driving and he held no insurance,” Menses said.
In a telephone interview Friday, Michael Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, offered some pushback.
Riley said the idea that drivers must have at least two periods of consecutive rest from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. is an outlandish claim without scientific backup.
“Where is the proof? There is no justification for these proposals,” Riley said. “You can’t legislate when people should sleep and when they get tired.”
Riley said that truck drivers and the industry need flexibility. He believes that early mornings are the best time for trucks to be running because there are no commuters on the roads. The industry needs to spread truckers’ schedules out throughout the day, and taking two early mornings away does not enable them to do that.
“We do not undermine the importance of safety. Safety is the most important part of trucking operations,” Riley said. “We aren’t changing on-duty or off-duty hours, or even mandatory rest breaks. But these regulations are just inappropriate. This is an insult to the industry.”