NTSB: Driver fatigue, excessive speed cause of Tracy Morgan crash

By Greg Grisolano, Land Line associate editor | Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The trucker who hit a limousine van carrying actor-comedian Tracy Morgan had been awake for at least 28 hours before the fatal crash, the fatigue from which resulted in his delayed braking to avoid traffic that was slowing and stopped for an active work zone, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The crash, which occurred near Cranbury, N.J., in June of last year, ultimately resulted in the death of comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair and serious injuries for Morgan and other passengers. The NTSB investigators said the failure of Morgan and other passengers in the limo to wear seat belts contributed to the severity of their injuries when the vehicle was rear-ended by Kevin Roper’s tractor trailer. None of the passengers in the back of the 10-seat limo, nor the driver, were wearing seatbelts.

Truck driver Kevin Roper’s day started 11:22 a.m. on Friday, June 6, 2014, at a Walmart facility in Smyrna, Del., according to his electronic driver log. It would end at approximately 12:54 a.m. on Saturday, June 7, 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.

Immediately before arriving in Delaware for work, Roper had driven more than 800 miles from his home in Georgia to the distribution center, where he reported for duty without rest, the NTSB investigators stated.

“Hours-of-service rules cannot address what drivers do on their own time,” NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said. “This driver had been on duty 13 1/2 hours of a 14-hour workday, but had been awake more than 28 hours at the time of the crash. Fatigue management programs can help.”

The NTSB report, which was presented on Tuesday morning, also stated that Roper’s operation of the truck at a speed in excess of the posted limit for the work zone area contributed to the crash. According to NTSB, Roper traveled nearly a mile past the first work zone sign and almost a half-mile past the 45 mph speed limit sign without reducing speed. The truck continued traveling at 65 mph until it reached a closing distance of approximately 200 feet before the impact. NTSB investigators concluded that if the truck had been traveling at the posted work zone speed of 45 mph, it could have stopped before impact.

The truck was equipped with a Bendix Wingman Active Cruise with Braking system that should have issued a pre-crash audible alert to the driver. Despite the presence of the device, which features forward facing radar that should notify a driver of a stopped vehicle or imminent crash, investigators were unable to find any data on the device indicating that the system warned Roper of the impending crash.

One of the recommendations the NTSB is suggesting is that manufacturers of such systems design them to be capable of storing and retrieving data “in a manner useful to system performance analysis and accident investigation.”

Mark Valentini, OOIDA director of legislative affairs, attended Tuesday’s meeting. He said the board’s questions regarding the forward crash warning system in this crash were important in highlighting the Association’s position that more technology does not necessarily equate to safer vehicles.

“This is the first time we’ve had a chance to monitor the performance (of an FCWS) and it failed,” he said. 

Altogether the board made nine safety recommendations, including reiterating a 2010 recommendation for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to make fatigue management programs mandatory for all carriers, and for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop variable speed limiter and adaptive devices for trucks and motor coaches, and to require all newly manufactured vehicles to have such devices.

The NTSB also reiterated an earlier recommendation that all passenger motor carriers must do pre-trip safety demonstrations and provide printed instructions for passengers.

NTSB board members took New Jersey emergency medical responders to task for what the investigation described as a lack of training on the part of those who were first on the scene, many of whom are volunteers. New Jersey doesn’t have requirements for the number of training hours that volunteer emergency responders must have, or a certification program.

“Apparently it’s tougher to be a cosmetologist than it is to be an emergency responder or a trucker,” Valentini said.

It took first responders more than 37 minutes to extricate the first person from the wrecked limo, which ended up on its side. The main passenger door was inoperable due to the damage sustained in the crash and the modifications made to the vehicle left passengers isolated from the cab and unable to escape through the front doors. The NTSB also recommended that modifications to these types of vehicles provide for a second means of egress.

The NTSB has posted an abstract of the findings, probable cause, and its recommendations on the board’s website. The full report is expected to be available on the NTSB website in several weeks.

Walmart settled civil suits with McNair’s family and with Morgan and the other crash survivors earlier this year. Roper faces criminal charges in New Jersey, including one count of death by auto and four counts of assault by auto.

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