June 9, 2014 9:30 AM, EDT
Police Say Wal-Mart Truck Driver Went 24 Hours Without Sleep Before Morgan Crash

A Wal-Mart Stores Inc. truck driver went at least 24 hours without sleep before his tractor-trailer crashed into a limousine, critically injuring actor-comedian Tracy Morgan and killing another entertainer, according to a police complaint.

Kevin Roper, 35, of Jonesboro, Georgia, drove “without having slept for a period in excess of 24 hours” before the six-vehicle accident on June 7 at 1 a.m. ET Saturday on the New Jersey Turnpike, according to a complaint released June 9.

Roper, who is free on $50,000 bail, is charged with death by auto and assault in the complaint filed in Cranbury Township, New Jersey. The complaint, signed by a New Jersey state trooper, didn’t specify how police knew about Roper’s sleepless state. Roper is scheduled to make his first court appearance on June 9.

The accident may make it more complicated for U.S. lawmakers who are considering an end to federal rules designed to help prevent long-haul truck drivers from dozing at the wheel.

Bill Simon, president of Wal-Mart U.S., apologized for the accident and said the company is cooperating with law enforcement. Wal-Mart U.S. is a unit of Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retail chain, with about $476 billion of revenue in the fiscal year that ended Jan. 31.

“With regards to news reports that suggest Mr. Roper was working for 24 hours, it is our belief that Mr. Roper was operating within the federal hours of service regulations. The details are the subject of the ongoing investigation and we are cooperating fully with the appropriate law enforcement agencies. The investigation is ongoing and unfortunately we can’t comment further on the specifics. Federal law requires drivers to work no more than 14 hours for any shift and 11 hours of driving,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said in a statement.

Roper “failed to observe” slow-moving traffic ahead of him until it was too late, colliding with the limousine, said Gregory Williams, a sergeant first class with the New Jersey State Police. The limousine van, a 2012 Mercedes Sprinter, spun and then flipped over, Williams said.

Comedian James McNair, 62, of Peekskill, New York, who was in the limousine van, was pronounced dead at the scene at 1:53 a.m., according to a press release issued by the Middlesex prosecutor’s office.

Morgan, 45, who starred in the television comedy “30 Rock” after leaving “Saturday Night Live,” was one of three people in the van critically injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board joined the investigation by state police. Spokesman Keith Holloway said the agency will look at the work and rest schedule of the drivers, and will examine questions related to commercial trucking and limousine safety.

Last week, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee passed an amendment that would suspend the main federal regulation requiring truckers to take an extended break after reaching weekly time limits, potentially undoing a 15-year effort to reduce highway fatalities caused by long-haul drivers who fall asleep at the wheel.

Those regulations, which took effect last July, set a 70-hour cap on a driver’s workweek. Trucking groups have said they’re most concerned with the provision that forces drivers to take 34 hours off, which must include being off the road from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on two consecutive days during that period.

American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves said that no rule, including the hours-of-service rule, can dictate what drivers do during their off-hours. “The industry – including ATA, our member fleets, our state associations and the millions of safe, professional truck drivers on the road today – strongly believes that drivers must take advantage of their off-duty periods for rest and that drivers should not drive if they are fatigued," he said in a statement.

The 34-hour “restart” requirement, which begins the clock ticking on a new work week, was intended to make sure drivers got enough sleep. The restart is required only if a driver has reached the maximum weekly limits of 70 hours over eight days or 60 hours over seven days.

The legislative amendment would be attached to a larger transportation funding bill that must still be adopted by the full Senate. In turn, the funding bill would have to be reconciled with the version passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.