It can be one of the most devastating traffic accidents when a car crashes into the side of a tractor trailer and slams underneath. In such an incident, many of the safety features on a vehicle are rendered worthless. The top of the car is probably sheered off in a crash of this sort. In many cases the occupants are decapitated. Government statistics show that more than 200 people are killed this way every year and experts say that these type of crashes and fatalities could be prevented if trucks were required to have side guards to deflect cars.
The Federal Agency in charge of highway safety requires guards on the back of trucks, but not along the sides. Key lawmakers in Congress have not pushed the issue despite a recommendation from the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB).
The dangers of side underride crashes and the accompanying fatalities have been well known and documented for decades. The death of Hollywood star Jayne Mansfield 50 years ago on a Louisiana highway sparked the first call for rear and side protection. But it wasn’t until 1998 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated rear guards. However, side guards are still not required even though the NTSB, which investigates highway accidents, concluded that they would reduce injuries and deaths on the American highways. The NTSB issued a non-binding recommendation to NHTSA in April of 2014 that all new trailers have side protection systems.
Joan Claybrook, a consumer advocate who ran the National Highway Safety Administration in the ‘70s, said technology isn’t the stumbling block. Joan says NHTSA has the power to issue regulations, or Congress can order the department to act – a process that starts with the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
Safety advocates have pointed out the money flowing from truck manufacturers. Members on the Committee have received more than $9 million from the transportation industry in 2016. Rep. John Thune, R-South Dakota, has been the chairman of this committee since 2015. He received more than $750,000 in contributions in the past five years.
Underride guards on the rear of tractor trailers have proven effective in preventing underride in crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Now new IIHS tests show how well-built guards can prevent a passenger vehicle from sliding beneath the side of a semi-trailer.
The tests conducted in the Spring of 2017 marked the first time the IIHS has evaluated side underride guards. IIHS ran two 35 mph crash tests: one with an Angel wing side underride protection device and the second test with a fiberglass skirt intended to provide improved aerodynamics, but not underrides. In both tests, mid-size cars struck the center of the 53-foot-long dry van trailer. In the Angel wing test, the underride guard bent but did not allow the car to go underneath the trailer, so that cars airbag and safety belt could properly restrain the test dummy in the driver’s seat. In the second test with no underride guard protection, the car ran into the trailer and kept going. The impact sheered off part of the roof and the sedan became wedged beneath the trailer. In a real world crash like this, any occupant in the car would likely sustain fatal injuries.
In 2012 an IIHS study found that strong side underride guards have the potential to reduce injury risks in about three quarters of large truck side crashes producing fatalities or serious injuries to passengers vehicle occupants. This proportion increased to almost 90 percent when restricted to crashes with semi-trailers.
Federal law requires large trucks to have rear underride guards but not side underride guards. At least three U.S. cities – Boston, New York and Seattle – mandate side guards on city owned and/or contracted trucks as part of Vision 0 Initiatives to eliminate crash deaths and injuries, particularly among pedestrians and bicyclists.
Even though the wheels of the tractor trailer offer some underride protection, if a passenger vehicle were to strike it with no side underride guard, only 28 percent of the 53-foot trailer length would be protected from the underride. With the Angel wings side underride guard in place, 62 percent of the trailer’s length is protected. The side underride guard can be retrofitted to existing semi-trailers.
Marianne Carth knows first hand the devastation caused by an underride crash involving a tractor-trailer. Her two teenage daughters, AnnaLeah and Mary, died in an underride crash in May of 2013. Since her daughters’ death, Mrs. Carth has been advocating for legislative and regulatory reforms that will mandate side underride guards and strengthen existing rear under guard standards, which are mandatory on semi-trailers. Mrs. Carth and another mother, Lois Durso, are pushing legislation aimed at preventing underride crashes called “The Roya, AnnaLeah and Mary Comprehensive Underride Protection Act of 2017.” Mrs. Durso lost her 26-year-old daughter Roya to a side underride crash 12 years ago.
In Europe, side and rear underride guards had been required on trailers since 1989. The Truck-Trailer Manufacturer’s Association opposes mandating side underride guards on trailers, stating they are not cost effective and may add weight, which could weaken them. Until side underride guards are mandatory and stricter rules are adopted to strengthen rear underride guards, Mrs. Carth and Mrs. Durso will continue their fight to have legislation passed to protect others on the highway.
If you need more information on the need for side underride guards – and the subject generally – contact Greg Allen, our Senior Product Liability lawyer, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Greg.Allen@beasleyallen.com.
Sources: Insurance Institute, Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute; NBC News.com; and www.trucks.com
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