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U.S. senators, safety groups fight over truck driver rest mandates

By Annika McGinnis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate wrestled on Thursday over whether to repeal federal regulations that require truck drivers to take nighttime rest breaks, with some lawmakers arguing the rules have led to more daytime accidents while others saying they are critical to relieving fatigue.

The perils of driver fatigue gained national attention earlier this month after a truck crashed into a limousine van carrying comedian Tracy Morgan on the New Jersey Turnpike, critically injuring Morgan and killing another passenger, comedian James "Jimmy Mack" McNair. The truck driver, Walmart employee Kevin Roper, had not slept for more than 24 hours, according to a criminal complaint filed in Middlesex County Court in New Jersey.

Under a federal law put in place last year, truck drivers must rest for at least 34 hours after working a 70-hour week, and the rest time - known as the restart period - must include two periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. to ensure truckers get adequate nighttime rest. The law also caps daily driving to 11 hours and requires a 30-minute break every eight hours.

On Thursday, as a Senate transportation, housing and urban development appropriations bill came up for debate with an amendment suspending the time-of-day requirements on rest, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut were pushing to keep them in place.

"Requiring those drivers operating 80,000-pound trucks on busy roads to get some rest is not only common sense, it's supported by science," Booker said on the Senate floor. "The current rule...is preventing crashes, is preventing the loss of life."

But Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and several trucker groups say the restart rules force truckers to drive during busy daytime hours, when more cars are on the road and they are more likely to get into accidents. Collins’s amendment would suspend the restart rules' time-of-day restrictions and once-a-week cap for a year while the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration conducts a study assessing their impact.

"There are people in this country who work a night shift. And if you talk to them, they will tell you that what is disruptive to them is to work a day shift part of the week, a night shift part of the week, go back to the day shift, go back and forth," Collins said.

Sean McNally, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, a trade group, said lawmakers should be more concerned with issues of speed and distracted driving than fatigue.

In 2012, large-truck accidents killed about 4,000 people and injured more than 100,000 nationwide, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. In a 2006 Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration study, 65 percent of truck drivers reported they often or sometimes felt drowsy while driving. Almost half said they had fallen asleep at the wheel in the previous year.

(Editing by Caren Bohan, Leslie Adler and Jonathan Oatis)

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