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August 11, 2015 10:00 AM, EDT

Tracy Morgan Crash: Wal-Mart Driver Fatigue, Unused Seat Belts Were Factors, NTSB Says

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
A Wal-Mart Stores Inc. driver hit a limo van carrying comic Tracy Morgan last year because he was so fatigued he didn’t notice traffic had slowed ahead of him, U.S. investigators found Aug. 11.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Wal-Mart could have done a better job of educating its drivers about the need for sleep. The driver had been awake for 28 hours and worked almost 14 hours at the time of the accident, the investigation found.

"Although Wal-Mart addressed fatigue as part of its driver training program, it did not have a structured fatigue management program in place that could have improved its ability to better monitor and educate its drivers about the risks of fatigue," the report said.

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It also recommended that Wal-Mart "incorporate into your corporate safety program a method for conducting ongoing analysis of aggregated critical event report data on hard-braking and stability control events."

There also needs to be better markings at highway work zones for drivers, and injuries among passengers in the van were more severe because none of the occupants wore a seat belt, NTSB said in its probable cause findings released at a meeting in Washington.

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

Morgan, a former star on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” suffered multiple facial fractures, a shattered leg and a traumatic brain injury in the June 7, 2014, accident that caused him to be in a coma for two weeks. His friend, comedian James McNair, was killed.

The men’s limo van was almost stopped in traffic in a construction zone when it was struck by a tractor-trailer owned by Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer.

“Heavy trucks are involved in nearly one in eight fatal crashes,” Hart said. “This alone demands our attention. In work zones, such as the one in which this crash occurred, one in four fatal crashes involves a heavy truck.”

The crash has similarities with other truck accidents and raises broader safety concerns, according to NTSB. It is one of several high-profile accidents that triggered a national debate about truck safety.

NTSB said in January that highway regulators had failed to act on more than 100 trucking-related policy recommendations while fatalities have risen the past four years.

The truck would have stopped in time to prevent the accident if it hadn’t been speeding in the work zone, NTSB investigator David Rayburn said. The calculation was made based on when the brakes were applied.

Investigators estimated it was traveling at 65 mph in an area that was temporarily limited to 45 mph.

The Wal-Mart driver, Kevin Roper, missed numerous cues indicating that cars were slowed ahead and the speed limit was lowered, according to investigators. The slowed cars were visible for a half-mile ahead, NTSB investigator Dennis Collins said.

These are indications that the driver was fatigued, Collins said. The accident occurred at 1 a.m. EDT, when the human body craves sleep, he said.

Roper was nearing the end of a 14-hour shift, the maximum allowed, when he struck the van, according to NTSB. He has pleaded not guilty to death by auto and other charges.

Investigators were puzzled about why he accepted the final load on his shift because he probably wouldn’t have made it to his destination before reaching the maximum hours he could legally work. Roper did not agree to be interviewed by NTSB.

Wal-Mart would have allowed him to rest and even paid him for sleeping time, which meant he would have earned more money had he declined, investigator Michael Fox said.

“It really makes no sense at all why this driver accepted this last load,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said.

He had commuted about 800 miles from his home in Jonesboro, Georgia, to Smyrna, Delaware, before beginning his shift, according to NTSB.

Hart via NTSB livestream

Morgan in May settled a civil lawsuit for an undisclosed amount after claiming Wal-Mart was negligent. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer apologized for its involvement in the crash and said it was “committed to doing what’s right” to all involved. Morgan had said that Wal-Mart "stepped up to the plate in a tremendous way."

NTSB also found issues with poor emergency response, which prompted a delay in taking victims to a local hospital. Some of the injured were moved without appropriate precautions and training was inadequate, investigator Thomas Barth said.

New Jersey has no minimum requirement for emergency responder training and certification, Barth said. Sumwalt said a cosmetologist in New Jersey has to have more training than an emergency worker.

None of the passengers in Morgan’s van wore a seat belt, according to NTSB. The van’s driver also wasn’t belted in.

That increased the severity of the injuries, investigators concluded.