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A Wal-Mart tractor-trailer whose allegedly fatigued driver hit a limousine last month, seriously injuring comedian Tracy Morgan and killing his friend, has brought fresh scrutiny of trucker safety as the industry tries to alter federal rules limiting drivers' time behind the wheel without rest.
Trucking firms and a trucking industry group argue that the rules imposed a year ago could result in even more accidents.
Earlier this month, the recovering Mr. Morgan, the “30 Rock'' comedy sitcom star, sued Wal-Mart Stores Inc., accusing the world's largest retailer of negligence connected with the allegedly overworked driver of the rig that crashed into his limo on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Meanwhile, insurance covering the commercial trucking industry remains competitive with adequate capacity, and experts say a relatively new federal monitoring system has helped insurers underwrite such risks.
Regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that took effect July 1, 2013, allow truck drivers who reach the maximum 70 hours of driving within one week to resume driving only if they have rested for 34 consecutive hours. That period must include at least two nights when, according to the agency, their body clock demands they sleep the most: from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. After that, a “restart” to resume driving only can be done once in a 168-hour or seven-day period.
On a 21-9 bipartisan vote last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a proposal by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that would suspend for a year the so-called “restart” rules and require the federal motor carrier safety administration to conduct a study to assess the rules' operational, safety, health and fatigue effects.
However, the Collins amendment has generated opposition in Congress. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced an amendment to a Senate appropriations bill backed by several other senators that would retain the trucking safety regulations.
Sen. Booker said in a statement a recent National Transportation Safety Board report indicates the Wal-Mart truck driver was minutes away from the maximum hours of service federal rules permit truck drivers to work.
“I am deeply concerned that truck drivers are being pushed to the absolute limits by the industry in order to make a decent wage and maintain their job security. The current state of the industry puts them in danger,” he said.
Trucking firms and the industry's Washington-based American Trucking Association say these regulations significantly affect truck drivers' productivity, as well as increase traffic — and hence the danger of accidents — during busier daylight hours.
These regulations “don't make any sense. What they're trying to do is control the drivers' sleeping habits,” said Barry Pottle, president of Bangor, Maine-based Pottle's Transportation Inc. Mr. Pottle said he favors simply limiting drivers to 70 hours of work during any eight-day period.
The regulations are “really going to hurt the economy and the industry” by requiring more trucks to handle the same amount of freight, said Kevin Burch, president of trucking firm Jet Express Inc. in Dayton, Ohio.
“The general feeling in the insurance industry is that the new hours of service regulations were set up to help with the fatigue problem, and anything that could help with that is a good thing,” said Greg Golden, Little Rock, Arkansas-based chief operating officer for Aon Risk Solutions' transportation and logistics practice.
However, Tim Horgan, vice president of transportation at Greenville, South Carolina-based Canal Insurance Co. said, while “the goal is for us to have safer operating trucking companies,” there “needs to be a lot more study done” before a decision can be made “as to whether that's going to impact insurance or not.''
Forcing more trucks on the road after 5 a.m., when there is more traffic, could lead to higher insurance rates “because experience would be worse, and losses would be higher, so accidents equates to premium,” said Dave Manning, president of Nashville, Tennessee-based trucking firm Tennessee Express Inc.
Experts, meanwhile, point to the value of the information generated by the federal motor carrier safety administration's “Compliance, Safety, Accountability” program, rolled out in December 2010, which measures hours of service compliance, driver fitness, the use of controlled substances, vehicle maintenance, among other performance indicators.
“Just about every underwriter I know is utilizing” this data, Mr. Golden said.
Underwriters now “have more power to be able to get information on the performance of transportation companies,” said David A. Barry, Overland, Kansas-based national technical director for casualty risks control at Wills North America Inc.
The program has made trucking firms “much more aware of safety elements” with which they need to comply, said Rich Bleser, Milwaukee-based senior vice president of Marsh Risk Consulting.
Also valuable is the move toward “electronic logging,” which electronically tracks factors including driver hours and rest periods, in place of the sometimes-unreliable paper versions previously used, experts say.
While electronic logging is expected to eventually become mandatory, many trucking firms have moved toward this system already, which will help insurers evaluate risks, experts say.
Meanwhile, the commercial trucking insurance market overall remains competitive, they say.
“Capacity is still plentiful and rates are moderately soft, especially for those accounts that have a good loss history and a good track record with their insurance carrier,” said Matthew Payne, Kansas City, Missouri-based senior vice president and transportation unit manager for Lockton Cos. L.L.C.
The Wal-Mart Stores Inc. truck driver charged in connection with the fatal crash that also seriously injured comedian Tracy Morgan was working hours that were within federal guidelines to the company's knowledge, said the retailer, despite reports he had been driving for more than 24 hours, which is far beyond those guidelines.