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August 17, 2015 1:45 AM, EDT

NTSB Blames Wal-Mart Driver's Fatigue in Fatal Crash That Hurt Comedian Morgan

This story appears in the Aug. 17 print edition of Transport Topics.

The National Transportation Safety Board has unanimously placed the primary blame on a fatigued driver of a Wal-Mart Transportation truck in the June 2014 highway crash in New Jersey that killed one person and seriously injured comedian Tracy Morgan.

NTSB members voted 4-0 on Aug. 11 to accept the staff assessment that also said injuries could have been mitigated if the five passengers in the back of a limousine van had been wearing seat belts.

The board renewed its interest in fatigue-management programs, saying that Wal-Mart should develop and implement such a plan and that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration should require them from all of the motor carriers that the agency regulates.

“Fatigue cannot be addressed solely by regulations. Strong hours-of-service rules are important, but they cannot govern what employees do on their own time,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in his closing statement.

Fatigue-management programs can help promote safety by educating drivers, dispatchers and management about fitness for duty, Hart said.

Kevin Roper, then 35, drove a Wal-Mart tractor-trailer into the back of limo van at 12:55 a.m., the report said. Although 13½ hours into a 14-hour on-duty period, he was not in violation of FMCSA’s hours-of-service rule at the time of the accident on the northbound side of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Prior to beginning his driving shift in Delaware he drove to the Wal-Mart location from his home in Georgia. NTSB found Roper

had been up for more than 28 straight hours and only had the opportunity for four hours of sleep in the 33 hours before the accident.

NTSB staffers told board members they tried repeatedly to interview Roper but his attorney would not allow it. Roper has pleaded not guilty to charges of vehicular homicide and assault by auto. Wal-Mart suspended him from driving immediately after the accident.

“Following the . . . accident, our transportation team made some enhancements to improve our safety program,” Wal-Mart said in a statement after the NTSB meeting. “This includes additional training and education for our drivers reinforcing their responsibility to make sure they are fit to drive whenever they get into one of our trucks. We are in the process of implementing a comprehensive fatigue-management plan that takes in to account driver commutes.”

“We will study the findings and recommendations in the NTSB’s reports and how we might apply additional key learnings. We are deeply sorry that one of our trucks was involved,” the retailer said.

The NTSB report said Roper’s 2011 truck was equipped with telematics and generated critical event reports sent to management when there was hard braking or a threat of rollover. He had been working for Wal-Mart for 15 weeks at the time of the accident and had nine CERs before the accident, or three per month.

The report also ruled out several issues other than fatigue.

“No mechanical conditions of the vehicles caused or contributed to the severity of the crash; alcohol, illicit drugs or distractions did not appear

to affect the Wal-Mart Transportation truck driver; and weather and road conditions were not factors in the crash,” the report said.

The fatality in the crash was comedian James McNair, 62. Morgan, McNair and three other people who were seriously injured were all in the rear cabin of the limo van, sitting in captain’s chairs. None of them were wearing seat belts.

The driver and another passenger in the front of the limousine were wearing seat belts and received only minor injuries.

In separate actions, Morgan and McNair’s family settled claims with Wal-Mart out of court. Terms of the settlements were not revealed.

The accident was in a construction zone in Cranbury, New Jersey. The report said Roper entered the construction area at 65 mph, even though the zone was posted at 45 mph.

Traffic slowed to 10 mph because of construction and Roper did not begin braking until he was 200 feet behind the limousine with McNair and Morgan. The report said Roper would have been able to stop in time if he had entered the zone at 45 mph.

The report estimated the velocity of Roper’s truck at 47 mph to 53 mph at the time of impact.