06/13/2014 05:40 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2014

Driver Fatigue is No Joke

Last weekend's tragic accident in which a Wal-Mart truck crashed into comedian Tracy Morgan's limo-van, killing one passenger and leaving the comedian and another passenger in critical condition, shines a national spotlight on driver fatigue.

Tired drivers are no joke.

They cause more than 55,000 accidents in the U.S. each year, killing roughly 1,550 people and injuring another 71,000. And now, recent congressional action could make the problem even worse.

A criminal complaint filed in the Morgan incident alleges the driver had not slept in 24 hours - a charge the driver and his employers deny. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for truck drivers, or interstate bus operators to be behind the wheel in a sleep deprived condition. Nearly 40 percent of all semi-truck accidents are caused by fatigue. And it's the number one cause of fatal tour bus accidents according to the National Transportation Safety Board. It's a problem that compromises safety for everyone on the nation's highways.

Yet the Senate Appropriations Committee recently voted to suspend the "restart" rule that went into effect last summer. Designed to improve highway safety by reducing driving fatigue among truckers, the restart regulation required truckers to rest for at least 34 consecutive hours--including two nights from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.--before beginning a new work week. The Senate Committee's suspension of the rule also would allow trucking companies to revert back to a maximum average work week of 82 hours; the reset rule limited the average maximum to 70 hours.

Think that's bad? The situation for intercity bus drivers is far worse.

Today, there are more than 3,700 commercial motor coach and van companies in the United States--thanks to deregulation of the industry during the 1980s--a number far surpassing what the Federal Motor Safety Administration can monitor for compliance with federal rules.

These companies advertise cheap fares, free Wi-Fi, live TV, comfortable seats and other so-called luxuries. But what about their safety record, and the driver's experience, pay and hours driving.

In fact the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act exempts intercity bus operators from paying overtime to their severely underpaid drivers.

Such lax federal oversight puts all motorists in the crosshairs on roads where intercity bus operators often drive far longer than federal law allows; and where poorly paid drivers often have to work second jobs during the time they should be resting.

To address driver fatigue in a meaningful way, Congress should start by removing the overtime exemption for intercity motor coach operators. The abuse of bus drivers with low wages by unscrupulous operators in a deregulated industry is the underlying cause of driver fatigue. This worker exploitation is killing drivers, passengers and drivers on our nation's roads.

Extending this simple overtime protection to bus drivers would discourage the overscheduling of drivers while also reducing drivers' need to take second jobs during their rest periods. It also would greatly improve the safety of our nation's roads for everyone.

Any plan to reduce bus driver fatigue that doesn't include a proposal to remove the unjust overtime exemption for intercity bus drivers in the Fair Labor Standards Act cannot be taken seriously. Because driver fatigue is no laughing matter.