On The Hill, Debate Reawakens Over Tired Truckers

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The accident that seriously injured comic Tracy Morgan and killed another comedian has focused attention on truck driving safety. New regulations limited the amount of overnights truckers could work, but the trucking industry and its congressional allies are trying to roll back the limits.


Last weekend, a tractor-trailer hit a limo carrying comedian Tracy Morgan. He's still hospitalized, and comedian James McNair was killed. The truck driver had allegedly not slept for more than 24 hours. And despite the attention, the trucking industry is working to roll back a regulation, passed last year, regulating rest periods. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: In 2012, the last year for which there are records, almost 4,000 people died in accidents involving large trucks. Last July, new regulations took effect in an effort to reduce the number of lives lost. They limited the number of hours trucks can be on the road, and mandated break periods aimed at assuring truckers get two consecutive nights when they're off the road between one and five a.m.. The idea was to reduce the number of tired truckers. But Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine says there's been another effect.


SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: There's increasing concern that the regulations affecting overnight driving are actually resulting in more trucks being on the road during the most congested hours and during the hours when children are going to and from school.

NAYLOR: Collins won bipartisan approval for an amendment to a transportation spending bill, in a Senate committee, that would roll back that regulation for a year and order the government to further study the issue. The move has infuriated highway safety advocates like Daphne Izer. She founded Parents Against Tired Truckers after her son and three others were killed by a truck driver who'd fallen asleep at the wheel on the Maine Turnpike in 1993.


DAPHNE IZER: No load of freight is worth a human life. Safety must be first and foremost and be put ahead of the economic interests of the trucking industry.

NAYLOR: It's a complicated issue. The federal government says, overall, nearly 34,000 people were killed on the nation's highways in 2012, a slight increase from the previous year. In arguing against Collins' amendment, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois says more needs to be done to prevent all types of accidents.


SENATOR DICK DURBIN: Between driver fatigue, drugs, texting - let's be honest about this. The roads are not as safe as they should be. And it's our responsibility to make them safer.

NAYLOR: The president of the American Trucking Associations, former Kansas governor, Bill Graves, supports the suspension of the new regulations. He says accidents caused by tired truckers make up a small part of the overall number of highway crashes.


BILL GRAVES: The problem in this country is speeding. It's reckless driving. It's drugs and alcohol. It's inattentive driving. That's why we have 34,000 fatalities. In my opinion, it's not because we've fostered a climate of fatigue in commercial truck drivers.

NAYLOR: The Transportation Department opposes the change. It says the current regulations will save 19 lives and prevent some 1,400 crashes a year. Collins' amendment must still be approved by the full Senate and House. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.


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