NTSB issues preliminary report on New Jersey Turnpike crash

By Greg Grisolano, Land Line staff writer | 6/19/2014

The driver of a Walmart tractor-trailer that was involved in a fatal crash on June 7 was nearing the end of both the last leg of his run and his 14-hour workday when the crash occurred, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Truck driver Kevin Roper’s day started 11:22 a.m. on Friday, June 6, at a Walmart facility in Smyrna, Del., according to his electronic driver log. It would end at approximately 12:54 a.m. on Saturday morning, when his 2011 Peterbilt tractor-trailer slammed into a 2012 Mercedes-Benz limousine van near milepost 71.4 of the northbound lanes of the New Jersey Turnpike.

At the time of the crash, the driver had one hour and 23 minutes of driving time left but had only 28 minutes of his 14 hours of on-duty time, according to the report (which can be read in full here). The driver was 25 miles away from his final destination.

The impact of the crash caused both vehicles to move forward, causing secondary impacts with other vehicles that were slowed in the traffic queue that developed south of some road construction. The limo van rolled over and came to rest on its left side, facing east, across the center and right lanes, according to the report. As a result of the collision, one passenger in the limo van, 62-year-old comedian James McNair, of Peekskill, N.Y., died. Four other van occupants, including actor and comedian Tracy Morgan, were hospitalized. Morgan’s condition was upgraded to fair earlier this week.

Roper, 35, of Jonesboro, Ga., was arrested and charged with one count of death by auto and four counts of assault by auto in the Middlesex County Superior Court. He has pleaded not guilty.

The NTSB report states that Roper had made a series of pickups and drop-offs during the day in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania. The e-log reportedly shows that he left a Walmart facility near Bristol, Penn., roughly 54 miles southwest of his destination in Perth Amboy, N.J., at 12:20 a.m. on Saturday. The crash occurred roughly 30 miles away, near Cranbury, N.J.

The report states that the traffic congestion began some 2.7 miles north of the crash site, where construction contractors were performing work on a large overhead sign, causing the right and center lanes of the turnpike to be closed. The report states that an advance warning sign about one mile south of the crash location was activated, notifying drivers of the lane closure. At approximately one-half mile before the crash site, the posted speed limit was reduced from 55 mph to 45 mph.

According to the report, Roper had logged 9 hours and 37 minutes of drive time when the crash occurred, and 13 hours and 32 minutes of on-duty time. The report also states that the engine control module (ECM) on his Peterbilt recorded a traveling speed of 65 mph for the 60 seconds preceding the crash.

A criminal complaint filed by the Middlesex County prosecutor states that Roper had not slept for “a period of in excess of 24 hours,” but the document does not state any additional details as to how investigators arrived at that conclusion. The NTSB report states that investigators are looking into Roper’s activities, and the amount of rest he received in the hours and days preceding the crash.

Walmart issued a statement June 9 disputing claims that Roper had been working for 24 hours, saying it is the company’s belief that the driver was operating within the federal hours-of-service guidelines. The company has declined to comment on other issues, citing the ongoing investigation.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Walmart tractor-trailers were involved in 375 total crashes in the last three years, despite logging more than 667 million miles per year.

Of the 375 crashes, nine were fatality crashes, 127 were injury crashes, and 239 were tow-away crashes, according to FMCSA’s Safety Measurement System. The DOT-reported crash numbers do not take into account fault.

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