Sometimes in legislating, timing is everything.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) championed
a measure last week to roll back, at least temporarily, trucking-safety regulations intended to prevent highway accidents. Her proposal enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of the trucking industry, but drew sharp criticism from a trucking union, vehicle-safety advocates, a group called Parents Against Tired Truckers, and regulators at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
When Collins' measure was taken up in committee last week, very few noticed. Yesterday, however, as NBC News'John Schoen explained, it's the topic of considerable conversation
The New Jersey Turnpike crash involving an allegedly sleep-deprived Wal-Mart truck driver, in which comedian Tracy Morgan was injured and his friend killed, comes just days after the trucking industry won Senate support to roll back new rules designed to make sure truck drivers get enough rest. Kevin Roper, 35, was expected to appear in a New Jersey court on Monday on charges of vehicular homicide, assault and reckless driving in connection with the crash that killed one passenger and left Morgan and two others in critical condition. Roper had not slept for more than 24 hours before the accident, according to the complaint. The high-profile crash comes days after a Senate panel approved a proposal to roll back new rules, first proposed in 2010, forcing truck drivers to pull over and log a minimum number of hours for rest.
The new regulations, which the Obama administration considers "common sense" safeguards, would require long-haul drivers to honor "hours-of-service" rules, working no more than 70 hours per week -- down from 82. The regulations would also force drivers to follow "restart" rules that require at least 34 consecutive hours of downtime between work weeks.
Collins and the trucking industry want to suspend both measures for at least a year.
And their efforts were proceeding according to plan, right up until this weekend.
Instead of smooth legislative sailing, the deadly crash in New Jersey has given the debate "new urgency
On Monday, Parents Against Tired Truckers, the Truck Safety Coalition and the Teamsters union said that U.S. truck crashes kill about 4,000 people each year and injure 100,000 more, at a cost of some $87 billion. The groups hope that the fatal crash involving Morgan will persuade Congress to reject an amendment that a Senate committee approved Thursday to restore older rest rules for commercial truckers. "A lot of people don't know about Susan Slattery but a lot of people care about Tracy Morgan," said Ed Slattery of Cockeysville, Md., whose wife Susan was killed in August 2010 in a truck crash. His two sons who were traveling with her were critically wounded, and Slattery said he retired from his job to care for one son who was in a coma and is now permanently disabled. "No other industry can get away with killing 4,000 people every year. This has just got to stop. It's got to stop."
To be sure, many of these activists were deeply concerned about Collins' measure last week, too. The difference is, now they have a spotlight they didn't have before.
Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, held a conference call with reporters yesterday, and the media showed up
"This is a major moment, really, to stop the trucking industry from using its major clout," Claybrook said. "It seems no matter what we do, in terms of pushing to get safer trucks on the road, the trucking industry uses its clout to undo those improvements or stop any ones we push.... We are vehemently opposing the Collins amendment."
As we talked about
yesterday, the Maine Republican believes the current rules "have presented some unintended and unanticipated consequences that are not in the best interest of public safety, truck drivers, or the businesses and consumers that depend on their services."
Anne Ferro, who helps lead the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, argued last week
that Collins has it backwards. "We carefully considered the public safety and health risks of long work hours, and solicited input from everyone who has a stake in this important issue, including victims' advocates, truck drivers and companies," Ferro said. "Suspending the current Hours-of-Service safety rules will expose families and drivers to greater risk every time they're on the road."
ran a brief piece on the story yesterday with a picture of the Maine senator. The caption read
, "Bad timing, Sen. Collins."