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June 11, 2014 9:30 AM, EDT
Wal-Mart Trucker's Commute Becomes Focus in Turnpike Crash

The Wal-Mart trucker charged in the fatal New Jersey crash that injured actor Tracy Morgan had a lengthy commute from his home in Georgia before reporting to work, two people familiar with the probe said.

The time Kevin Roper spent commuting before his shift has become a focus of investigations into the June 7 crash, said the people, who asked not to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak. It wasn’t clear in which state Roper began his shift. Police say Roper hadn’t slept for more than 24 hours.

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The investigations are zeroing in on an area that falls outside U.S. safety rules that primarily apply to on-the-job time. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, said June 9 that the driver was complying with regulations that limit work-shifts to 14 hours and daily driving for work to 11 hours.

“It is our belief that Mr. Roper was operating within the federal hours-of-service regulations,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said in a June 9 statement.

Wal-Mart declined to comment on the driver’s schedule because of the police investigation, Buchanan said last night in an e-mail. Attempts to contact Roper by telephone led to an out-of-service number.

New Jersey State Police referred a media inquiry to James O’Neill, a spokesman for the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office. O’Neill didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail sent after business hours seeking comment.

Roper, 35, who is listed as residing in Jonesboro, Georgia, has been charged with death by auto after driving the Wal-Mart truck “without having slept for a period in excess of 24 hours,” according to a police complaint.

The U.S. fatigue rules also require at least 10 hours of rest in between work days. A driver must have 34 hours of rest after reaching a limit of 70 hours in any consecutive eight days.

The June 7 accident occurred at 1 a.m. ET on the New Jersey Turnpike when police say the truck rear-ended a limousine van carrying actor and comedian Morgan. The van spun and flipped over, killing one of the passengers, comedian James McNair, 62. Morgan, 45, and two others were critically injured.

Roper “failed to observe” traffic that had slowed ahead of him and collided with the limousine, said Gregory Williams, a sergeant first class with the New Jersey State Police.

Long commutes causing fatigue have also been an issue with airline pilots, including in a Feb. 12, 2009, crash of a Colgan Air turboprop plane near Buffalo, New York, that killed 50 people, according to NTSB’s report on that accident.

The co-pilot on the flight had flown overnight from Seattle to Newark, New Jersey, before reporting to work, the NTSB found. Since neither pilot had an apartment or hotel in Newark, both attempted to rest in a pilot lounge, according to the NTSB.

Pilots “have a personal responsibility to wisely manage their off-duty time,” the safety board said in its report.

While the NTSB stopped short of blaming the accident on fatigue, it recommended that aviation regulators take steps to reduce fatigue risks when pilots commute long distances to work.

At least four road accidents already under investigation by the NTSB involved similar circumstances to the June 7 New Jersey crash, in which truck drivers struck slower traffic ahead, Don Karol, director of the National Transportation Safety Board’s highway safety office, said in a Web post. The latest accident raised enough safety flags that the NTSB, which examines only a small fraction of highway accidents each year, sent a team to investigate.

Two days before the crash, a Senate committee voted to suspend federal hours-of-service rules for truckers that had taken effect less than a year ago. If it were to become law, the Senate provision would reopen a loophole that enabled certain drivers to be on duty for 82 hours in an eight-day period, according to the Transportation Department.