Motorists Shoulder the Trucking Industry’s Load With Their Lives

Scartelli Olszewski P.C.

Just a few months ago, we wrote about the federal government’s efforts to protect motorists by issuing rules intended to avoid excessive fatigue among commercial truck drivers. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimated that the new Hours-of-Service rules would cut truckers’ maximum work week from 82 hours to 70 hours, preventing about 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries each year, saving 19 lives. Sadly, they didn’t save James McNair.In the early morning hours of June 7, McNair, better known to the comedy world as Uncle Jimmy Mack, was one of several comedians riding in a chauffeured van on the New Jersey Turnpike following a performance in Delaware the previous evening. His fellow passengers included comedian Tracy Morgan, beloved for his work on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.” The Delaware show was one stop on an ongoing comedy tour, and it had been a long day. For Kevin Roper, though, it had been a much longer day. Roper, a truck driver from Georgia, had begun his day by getting up and driving to work – more than 700 miles away, in Smyrna, Delaware. It was there, shortly before lunchtime on June 6, that he reported to a Wal-Mart distribution center and began his trucking shift. Roper, who hadn’t slept since leaving his Georgia home, had been making pickups and deliveries in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey for 13 hours when he left Bristol, Pa. and steered his Wal-Mart tractor-trailer onto the northbound lanes of the New Jersey Turnpike. It was there, approaching Exit 8A, that the van carrying McNair, Morgan, and their fellow performers was inching forward in a construction delay. The speed limit in the construction zone was just 45 miles per hour, but the resulting congestion had slowed traffic to a crawl. About 20 minutes after Roper left Bristol, his 30-ton rig plowed into the back of the comedians’ van at 65 miles per hour. McNair was pronounced dead at the scene. Morgan and the others were hospitalized with serious injuries. The fame of the victims has drawn needed attention to a specter that hangs over all of us every time we drive on our nations’ highways. Despite comprising only 4.7 percent of the vehicles on our roads, trucks like the one Kevin Roper was driving are involved in 12.4 percent of all fatal crashes, according to figures published by the American Association for Justice. A passenger in a vehicle that collides with a truck is five times more likely to die than the truck’s driver. Nearly three times as many people die in truck accidents as die in aviation, boating and railroad accidents combined. In 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 3,757 people died in collisions with trucks in the United States. Meanwhile, the number of trucks on our roads continues to grow, and so does the size of the trucks themselves. As obvious as the risk is, though, the trucking industry is doing everything it can to fight safety reforms. Just days before McNair died, the Senate Appropriations Committee bowed to pressure from the industry to roll back the new work week restrictions, which had been in force for less than a year. The committee voted 21 to 9 to defund the Department of Transportation’s enforcement of the new rules, leaving them on the books but making them toothless. If business and government won’t act, it’s up to us to call the trucking industry to account. If you’ve been hurt or lost a loved one in an accident involving a commercial truck, call Scartelli Olszewski. If we determine that fatigue or other negligence was a factor, we’ll work to make sure justice is served to the responsible parties. We can’t keep tired truckers off the road. But we can help the industry understand that the costs of doing business this way are too high to sustain.