New crash tests and analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety demonstrate that underride guards on tractor-trailers can fail in relatively low-speed crashes – with deadly consequences. The Institute is petitioning the federal government to require stronger underride guards that will remain in place during a crash and to mandate guards for more large trucks and trailers.
As you may know, rear guards are the main countermeasure for reducing underride deaths and injuries when a passenger vehicle crashes into the back of a tractor-trailer. In 2009, 70% of the 3,163 people who died in all large truck crashes were occupants of cars or other passenger vehicles. Underride makes death or serious injury more likely since the upper part of the passenger vehicle’s occupant compartment typically crushes as the truck body intrudes into the vehicle safety cage. Adrian Lund, Institute president, had this to say:
Cars’ front-end structures are designed to manage a tremendous amount of crash energy in a way that minimizes injuries for their occupants. Hitting the back of a large truck is a game changer. You might be riding in a vehicle that earns top marks in frontal crash tests, but if the truck’s underride guard fails – or isn’t there at all – your chances of walking away from even a relatively low-speed crash aren’t good.
The Institute has studied the underride crash problem for more than 30 years, including mid-1970s crash tests demonstrating how then-current guards were ineffective in preventing underride. In the latest study, the Institute analyzed case files from the Large Truck Crash Causation Study, a federal database of roughly 1,000 real-world crashes in 2001-03, to identify crash patterns leading to rear underride of heavy trucks and semi-trailers with and without guards.
Underride was a common outcome of the 115 crashes involving a passenger vehicle striking the back of a heavy truck or semi-trailer. Only 22% of the crashes didn’t involve underride or had only negligible underride, a finding in line with prior studies. In 23 of the 28 cases in which someone in the passenger vehicle died, there was severe or catastrophic underride damage, meaning the entire front end or more of the vehicle slid beneath the truck. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that about 423 people in passenger vehicles die each year when their vehicles strike the backs of large trucks. More than 5,000 passenger vehicle occupants are injured. Mr. Lund observed:
Under current certification standards, the trailer, underride guard, bolts, and welding don’t have to be tested as a whole system. That’s a big part of the problem. Some manufacturers do test guards on the trailer. We think all guards should be evaluated this way. At the least, all rear guards should be as strong as the best one we tested. Another problem is that regulatory gaps allow many heavy trucks to forgo guards altogether. When they are present on exempt trucks, guards don’t have to meet 1996 rules for strength or energy absorption. Underride standards haven’t kept pace with improvements in passenger vehicle crashworthiness. Absent regulation, there’s little incentive for manufacturers to improve underride countermeasures, so we hope NHTSA will move quickly on our petition.
If you need additional information on this matter, including information on the testing done by the Institute, contact Greg Allen or Graham Esdale, lawyers in our Products Liability Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Greg.Allen@beasleyallen.com or Graham.Esdale@beasleyallen.com.
Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety News Release, March 1, 2011.
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