The Tracy Morgan Truck Accident Might End Up Saving Lives

Update: Mr. Morgan and two of his traveling companions have filed a complaint against Walmart. Here’s the most important parts:

68. Wal-Mart knew, or should have known, that Mr. Roper was awake for more than 24 consecutive hours immediately before the subject accident on June 7, 2014.

69. Wal-Mart knew or should have known that it was unreasonable for Mr. Roper to commute more than 700 miles from his home in Jonesboro, Georgia to work at a Wal-Mart facility in Smyrna, Delaware, especially immediately before he was to commence a long shift operating a truck that weighed approximately 30-40 tons. Additionally, there were many Wal-Mart distribution facilities closer to Mr. Roper's home - including at least nine in Georgia alone-which would have significantly reduced Mr. Roper's commute to work.

70. As a result of Mr. Roper's fatigue, he fell asleep behind the wheel of his truck while he was driving, failed to slow down for traffic ahead, and resultantly collided with the Limo directly in front of him in which Plaintiffs were passengers.

That’s consistent with what I wrote right after the accident: many of these truck accidents are caused by the company compelling drivers to keep driving even when they haven’t slept enough. These allegations are interesting as well:

71. Further, the Truck being operated by Mr. Roper was state-of-the-art, and equipped with sophisticated collision-avoidance systems all designed to begin automatically braking the truck when it senses slowing down traffic.

72. However, the Truck did not automatically brake before the accident, and thus, Wal-Mart knew or should have known that one of the truck's most important safety features was compromised.

The truck’s “black box” data recorder should be able to tell us a lot about what really happened in terms of the automatic braking, but I doubt anyone would have access to it yet other than the NTSB, which typically retains it until they have completed their investigation.

Walmart has responded with typical corporate doublespeak, promising to do “the right thing,” at least to the extent the law forces them to do so.

Here’s my original post:

Yesterday, comedian Tracy Morgan was involved in a horrible accident on the New Jersey Turnpike near Cranbury Township that killed one member of his group, seriously injured another two members, and left Morgan in the ICU.

It seems the group was riding back to New Jersey from Delaware in a passenger bus when traffic slowed - a common occurrence on the turnpike, even at 1am - and a Wal-Mart tractor-trailer failed to notice the slowed traffic, then, at the last second, swerved, but still ended up hitting Morgan's bus from behind. That sent the bus into other vehicles, and it ended up on its side. (I've seen a lot of reports calling it a "limousine" bus, which may be technically true, but it doesn't seem the vehicle was modified, it was just a normal Mercedes-Benz "Sprinter" passenger van.)

The circumstances of the accident are depressingly commonplace.

Let's start with the time of the accident: 1am. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, although the evening rush hours (5pm to 7pm) has the highest total number of fatalities, the hours from midnight to 3am actually have the highest fatal accident rate per number of people on the road.

There are a couple reasons why. First, it's dark - even with streetlights, it's darker than in the earlier hours in the night, because businesses tend to be closed and, with fewer cars, there are fewer headlights. I've driven that stretch of the NJ Turnpike innumerable times late at night, and it can get really dark, more like a rural highway than the type of driving you would expect between New York City and Philadelphia. The absence of scenery can cause drivers to acclimate to the speed, lulling them into complacency. 70 mph doesn't feel that fast when all you can see are the road signs 'slowly' rolling by.

Second, late into the night, more people are intoxicated, and more people are very intoxicated.

Third, people are just plain tired at that time of day, which causes "drowsy driving" and bursts of "microsleep." Other than the obvious problems - a drowsy driver is less likely to perceive problems, to react in time, to make the right choice under pressure - there's also the more subtle problem of how even people who are not at fault in the accident make mistakes. People are are less likely to wear their seatbelt at night, in part because they're more likely to forget it. (This is part of why it's good to teach children to put on belts habitually, and to do the same yourself, even just to drive across a parking lot, so that it feels abnormal to be in a car without a belt.)

Then there's the involvement of the tractor-trailer. A couple years back, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted the Large Truck Crash Causation Study (LTCCS), a collection of data on 1,000 large truck crashes, along with a thorough view of the data for each. Their findings showed that "one-half of the LTCCS crashes involved collisions between a large truck and a passenger vehicle (car, pickup truck, van, or sport utility vehicle)," and, of those crashes, the ten most common associated factors were:

  • Interruption of the traffic flow
  • Unfamiliarity with roadway
  • Inadequate surveillance
  • Driving too fast for conditions
  • Illegal maneuver
  • Inattention
  • Fatigue
  • Illness
  • False assumption of other road user’s actions
  • Distraction by object or person inside the vehicle.

Most of these issues are caused, at bottom, by bad policies in place at trucking companies. Policies that put speed over safety. Policies that encourage - or require - driving more hours than allowed by law, thereby forcing drivers on the road even when they’re fatigued. Policies that put unqualified, incompetent, or untrustworthy drivers behind the wheels of >80,000 lbs vehicles.

All those issues were part of why, last year, the Department of Transportation finally amended the FMCSA had amended the 'hours of service' rules to force drivers to get more sleep. (As I wrote about here almost exactly two years ago, given that the hour of service logbooks were already ripe with fraudulent entries, i.e., lying about the number of hours on the road, we desperately needed regulations forcing better compliance, like GPS and satellite tracking.)

In an amazing coincidence, just before the accident,the Senate had discussed rescinding those new rules and forcing the FMCSA to use the old rules. The claim is that the new rules cause congestion during the day; the reality is that manufacturers and retailers have a ton of clout on Capitol Hill, far more clout than safety advocates do.

It is cold-comfort for the victims of any accident to think there is a silver lining to their pain. But here there might really be one. If this accident prevents Congress from taking us back to the old, less safe driving rules of the past, then it will save numerous lives in the future.


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