NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — The truck driver charged in a crash that left one person dead and three others critically injured, including actor and comedian Tracy Morgan, had not slept for more than a day, according to court papers.
As CBS 2’s Emily Smith reported, Kevin Roper, 35, of Jonesboro, Georgia, has been slapped with a series of charges in connection with the six-car pile up on the New Jersey Turnpike in Cranbury early Saturday morning.
According to a criminal complaint, Roper was operating the truck “recklessly,” and “without having slept for a period in excess of 24 hours.”
Operating a vehicle on such little sleep is illegal in New Jersey, which means Roper is now facing one count of second-degree vehicular homicide and four counts of fourth degree assault by auto, CBS 2’s Diane Macedo reported.
Federal regulations limit truckers to 11 hours of driving during a 14-hour work day, with no more than 70 hours a week on the road without extra breaks. Drivers who are too sleepy to drive safely must pull over, the regulations say.
Roper surrendered to state police after the crash and was released on bail. He was due back in court Wednesday.
Walmart said he’s been placed on administrative leave and that if authorities determine the truck did in fact cause the crash the company “will take full responsibility.”
The number of fatal crashes involving large trucks rose between 2009 and 2012 after a four-year decline. Fatigue is a major factor in many of these accidents. Thirteen percent of crashes involve a driver who is not properly rested, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
EXTRA: Read The Complaint
Cellphone video captured the tragic crash. Police said Roper was driving the Walmart semi-trailer when it slammed into the back of a limo bus carrying Morgan and several friends, who were all returning from a standup show in Delaware. The limo bus then flipped, setting off a chain reaction.
The crash also involved a second tractor-trailer, a sport-utility vehicle and two cars. No one in the other vehicles was injured.
Police would not confirm reports that Roper had been asleep at the wheel, but said he apparently failed to slow for traffic ahead and swerved at the last minute to avoid a crash, but it was too late, Macedo reported.
The Mercedes limo bus in which Morgan and six others were riding was demolished.
Recordings of 911 calls from the scene were released late Monday afternoon, with witnesses reporting what they saw.
Dispatcher: “OK, what’s going on there?”
Caller: “It’s a terrible accident. The car flipped. It’s on its side.”
Comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair, 62, of Peekskill, was killed in the crash. His funeral is scheduled for Thursday.
The 45-year-old Morgan, who suffered a broken femur, broken nose and several broken ribs, remains in critical condition, but is showing signs of improvement after undergoing surgery Sunday, his publicist said. He is expected to remain at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey for several weeks.
Jeffrey Millea, of Shelton, Connecticut, and comedian Ardie Fuqua, who opened up for Morgan on Friday, were critically injured. Thirty minutes before the crash, Fuqua posted photos from the show and bus, along with the caption “Road life is a good life.”
Comedian Harris Stanton suffered a broken wrist, and was treated and released from an area hospital on Saturday. He walked out of his Brooklyn apartment late morning simply saying, “Thank you guys” to reporters.
Morgan, known for his work on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” appeared on “CBS This Morning” in April talking about stand up.
“I love it. It’s exhilarating,” he said. “You know, there’s nothing in the world like live entertainment.”
The section of the Turnpike where the crash took place is even notorious by New Jersey Turnpike standards. It has been called “the Big Road,” “the Monster,” and “the Black Dragon.”
A retired New Jersey State trooper said 18 months of experience are required before being assigned to the stretch of the roadway as an officer.
“In terms of the length, in many cases, it’s a mundane kind of trip or ride, so people will tend to lose focus and not pay attention,” a former trooper said.
As CBS 2’s Don Champion reported, the accident has shined a light on what could be a major problem on the nation’s highways, tired truckers.
The accident was also one of hundreds of crashes involving Walmart trucks. Federal data showed Walmart trucks have been involved in 380 crashes in the past two years.
Nine people have been killed and 129 injured in those accidents.
In 2012, the Department of Transportation reported that there were 317,000 accident involving large trucks resulting in more than 3,900 fatalities.
In 2013, the government tried to put the brakes on the problem by shortening the trucker work week from 82 hours to 70. Truckers are also required to take a 34 hour break between work weeks.
In an industry where time is money some truckers admitted that tightening the constraints creates an incredible pressure.
“For a lot of people you have truck payments to make, you have insurance, and if you’re an owner and operator you can’t afford to sit for two days or three days,” trucker Stephanie Weathers said.
It was unclear Monday how the company’s safety record compares to other carriers.
Walmart earned the government’s highest safety rating when it was reviewed a decade ago.
Many truckers now keep electronic driving logs that are closely monitored. Despite Roper’s apparent lack of sleep the company said that he is believed to have been operating his truck within regulations.
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