The fatal tractor-trailer crash in New Jersey last Saturday morning that critically injured comedian Tracy Morgan, critically injured two of his friends and killed another, could have happened right here in Schenectady.
The situation would be no different.
Each year, thousands of tractor-trailers traverse our highways, including the one that runs near the city's southern boundary, Interstate 890, and the New York State Thruway, Interstate 90.
Each day, there are traffic slowdowns due to construction, toll booths, weather or just ordinary congestion. And each day, there is probably more than one driver — like the driver of the tractor-trailer that collided with Morgan's limo-bus — who has driven too long and is simply too tired to adjust in time to the looming situation up ahead.
In 2012, truck crashes resulted in 3,912 fatalities nationwide, capping a three-year increase in deaths that followed a five-year decline.
What awaits here is a tragedy like the one that happened last weekend, especially if more drowsy drivers aren't taken off the road to get sleep.
Coincidentally, Congress is ready to enter the fray over how best to regulate the sleepy drivers.
Last year, legislation went into effect that required drivers who'd reached a certain number of hours on the road to take at least 34 consecutive hours off before starting a new one-week work period. It also required drivers to take time off during two consecutive overnight periods from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., the peak hours of driving for many truckers. The so-called “restart” requirements take effect when a driver exceeds 70 hours on the road during an eight-day work period or 60 hours during a seven-day period, according to the Huffington Post.
This legislation, in place since July 2013, was signed as a way to reduce accidents by tired truckers and to give drivers time to rejuvenate their biological systems by requiring consecutive hours of rest. All good.
But now a U.S. senator from Maine, Susan Collins, is throwing a wrench into the solution by seeking an amendment to eliminate that mandatory 34-hour consecutive rest period and the two-night 1-5 a.m. consecutive rest period.
Studies have shown that the body needs two nights of good rest to restore itself. So understandably, the senator is getting hammered by people on the safety side for trying to roll back the requirements. They claim she's being bought by the American Trucking Associations lobby, which supports a one-year suspension of the restart provisions until they can be reviewed. The association supports much of the law, including the sections limiting the amount of hours a trucker can drive in a day and mandatory half-hour rest periods. It doesn't want to chuck the entire law. Just the parts it considers unreasonable.
It's true, politicians can be had by big lobby groups. And it seems obvious to normal poeple that keeping drivers off the road between 1 and 5 a.m. would reduce a lot of drowsy driving. That time period is when most people who work or go to school in the daylight world do a good part of their sleeping. So it stands to reason that having truckers off the road during those hours would make everyone safer, right?
But that thought doesn't take into consideration the amount of traffic on the road at that time. The hours of 1 and 5 a.m. are actually a good time for big truckers to be on the road because there are fewer cars, fewer school buses and fewer opportunities for crashes.
The law enacted last year actually compels drivers to get up and start driving again right at the time when most motorists are heading to work and when the highways are most congested. Yes, the drivers could wait another couple of hours for the rush hour to pass before getting back on the road, but that's time and money lost. And by forcing drivers off the road when they're used to driving, it can distrupt some truckers' sleep patterns that actually help keep them alert on the road.
Doesn't it seem reasonable that you'd want truck drivers on the road when there are fewer cars and that you woudn't want to be putting them back on the road when there are the most?
Also, the rest-restart requirement is only for just two consecutive days. That means truck drivers can be on the road all night and into rush hour on the other days of the week, as long as they haven't exceeded their maximum driving hours. It seems like an odd requirement to single out two specific time periods for when they have to be off the road.
And as for the Tracy Morgan crash, if the driver of the truck was indeed awake for 24 hours as reports have stated, then he'd have been breaking the law, with or without the restart rules being changed.
Instead of automatically viewing Senator Collins' amendment as an attempt to make the roads more dangerous at the behest of a lobby group, lawmakers should see it for what it is — a chance to reduce accidents even more during heavy-traffic periods — and perhaps make adjustments to the law's unintended consequences.
Maybe, for instance, the rest-restart period could be pushed back to make it fall between 3 and 7 a.m. or 3 and 7 p.m. Maybe Congress shouldn't include a specific time period at all, but instead give drivers the option of when to take their consecutive four-hour rest periods. Maybe four hours is too much time or too little.
A one-year suspension might be too long to reconsider such an important safety measure. But clearly, the issue raised is a legitimate one, and shouldn't be shot down on the basis that it seems like it will do more harm. Considering the voices of those who know the industry the most might actually help make the law better and the roads safer.
What Congress doesn't want to do is roll back the reforms too much so that we return to the bad old days of drivers doing whatever they want, whenever they want, and for as long as they want, putting us all in grave danger.
A reasonable compromise on some areas of the new law, as opposed to a knee-jerk response, seems in order here.