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Truck-driving safeguards come into sharper focus

A deadly highway accident over the weekend left Tracy Morgan critically injured and renewed interest in a debate over truck-driving regulations.
Actor Tracy Morgan speaks during the taping of the Spike TV special tribute \"Eddie Murphy: One Night Only\" at the Saban theatre in Beverly Hills, California in this November 3, 2012 file photo.
Actor Tracy Morgan speaks during the taping of the Spike TV special tribute \"Eddie Murphy: One Night Only\" at the Saban theatre in Beverly Hills, California in this November 3, 2012 file photo.
A deadly highway accident over the weekend left one person dead and actor Tracy Morgan critically injured, after a truck driver "failed to observe the slow-moving traffic ahead of him" in time to avoid a collision. The driver of a Wal-Mart truck reported swerved, but it was too late.
Though the crash is still being investigated and we don't yet have all the relevant details, the awful accident coincides with a related policy debate underway on Capitol Hill over federal rules on truck safety.
As Melissa Jeltsen reported, "[T]he tragedy is likely to highlight a move by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week to undermine a federal regulation mandating truck driver rest."

Last week, the committee passed an amendment that would suspend a requirement that truck drivers rest for at least 34 consecutive hours -- including two nights from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. -- before beginning their next work week. The so-called "restart" regulation was among a number of changes that took effect last summer with the aim of reducing driver fatigue.  The new rules also limit the maximum average work week for truck drivers to 70 hours, a decrease from the previous maximum of 82 hours, and require drivers to take a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a shift.

At issue is something called "hours-of-service" rules for truckers and regulatory safeguards the Obama administration supports in the name of public safety.
The trucking industry, not surprisingly, isn't fond of the regulations and has found an ally in Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who championed a measure last week to suspend, at least temporarily, the safeguards imposed last summer.
Again, we simply don't know whether this weekend's crash related to driver fatigue (see update below). But the high-profile crash nevertheless makes it an awkward time for policymakers to weaken federal trucking rules intended to improve public safety and hopefully save lives.
In this case, Collins' most notable rival also happens to be one of her constituents.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine helped move the Senate a step closer Thursday to suspending federal regulations requiring certain hours of rest for long-haul truck drivers. Highway safety advocates, including a mother from Lisbon whose son was killed by a tired trucker, said Collins' amendment could increase the risk of fatal accidents involving tractor-trailers. "At 70 hours a week, truck driving continues to resemble sweatshops on wheels," said Daphne Izer, whose son and three of his friends were killed in 1993 when a truck driver fell asleep at the wheel after exceeding the number of weekly driving hours allowed by regulations. After the accident, Izer founded Parents Against Tired Truckers. "I'm sure (Collins) is getting pressure from the trucking industry to do this," she said. "It's her constituents she needs to think about, and safety on the highway."

The senator 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 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 last week. "Suspending the current Hours-of-Service safety rules will expose families and drivers to greater risk every time they're on the road."
Collins' proposal was approved by the Appropriations Committee, where she's the ranking member, but the larger bill has not yet been approved by the Senate.
Update: According to prosecutors, the truck driver was behind the wheel "without having slept for a period in excess of 24 hours."