This summer marks the fourth anniversary of a tragedy that occurred on a stretch of I-20 in Georgia between Augusta and Atlanta. It was a tragedy that forever changed the lives of the Karth family. The tragedy sparked a renewed focus on strengthening rear underride safety guards on heavy trucks such as tractor-trailers or semitrailer trucks. The incident has also helped heighten awareness about a similar growing need for protection from side underride crashes.
As we discussed in the June Report, Marianne Karth and three of her nine children were traveling from their home in North Carolina to Texas for two of their siblings’ graduations and a wedding in Texas when their Ford Crown Victoria was hit by one tractor-trailer, which sent it reeling under the side of another tractor trailer, as recalled on Marianne’s website. All four occupants were trapped and had to be extricated with the Jaws of Life. Marianne and her son Caleb were in the front seat and survived. Her two daughters were in the backseat, which went underneath the trailer, despite the rear underride safety guard, according to Bloomberg. AnnaLeah died instantly and Mary died days later from catastrophic injuries because of the accident.
The grieving mother, Bloomberg explains, learned that a $100 design change for the tractor-trailer underride guard could have saved her daughters’ lives – “wider spacing of support bars that hang from the end of truck trailers to prevent cars from sliding underneath.” She has joined efforts to improve rear guards and also advocates for mandated side guards so that no other family suffers a similar loss.
Rear underride guards have been used on the back of most tractor-trailer or semitrailer trucks since the 1950s to block cars from sliding under the back of a truck during a collision. They are intended to enable “air bags, crumple zones, and seat belts to save passengers.” Yet, the rear guards’ designs have not always been effective. Transportation safety advocates first began calling for improved safety measures following and underride crash that claimed the life of actress Jayne Mansfield 50 years ago. Although rear guards were finally mandated by Congress in 1998, NBC News reports, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) tests showed the designs were still underperforming.
In fact, IIHS recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) require an improved design for underride guards in 2011 – two years before the Karth family’s tragic accident. However, NHTSA did not respond nor publicly acknowledge the recommendation. Again in 2013 and just two months before the Karth accident, the IIHS conducted more tests on the guards and renewed its warning that designs needed improving. Still, there was and has been no action by U.S. regulators to mandate more effective designs.
Similarly, side underride crashes have become a growing concern for safety advocates. We discussed these crashes in the July issue. A side underride crash is one of the most common types of crashes involving tractor-trailers and passenger vehicles, Righting Injustice explains, and claims more than 200 lives every year. It occurs when a passenger vehicle slams into the side of a heavy truck and crashes underneath, reducing the effectiveness of the vehicle’s safety features. Yet, unlike rear underride guards, side guards are not federally mandated.
According to NBC News, key federal lawmakers on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee have been slow to act on these safety requirements. Interestingly, over the last six years, committee members have received more than $9 million in campaign donations from the transportation industry.
With federal law and policymakers’ inaction, emerging scientific proof may be the catalyst for spurring quicker action on underride safety measures including mandating side underride safety guards. Earlier this year, the IIHS tested side underride guards for the first time and the tests showed that a “well-built guard can prevent a passenger vehicle from sliding underneath the side of a semitrailer.” The tests were conducted on a truck using an AngelWing side underride protection device designed by Airflow Deflector, Inc. and a second truck with only a fiberglass side skirt, yielding dramatically different results.
The AngelWing device bent, but did not allow the passenger vehicle to crash beneath the truck. However, during the crash test of the side skirt, which is intended to improve aerodynamics rather than to protect passenger vehicles, the passenger vehicle slammed into the side of the truck and crashed underneath where it remained wedged. The crash sheared off the top part of the vehicle indicating that real-world crash victims would have sustained fatal injuries.
In the meantime, some jurisdictions are acting on their own to better protect those who share their roads. At least three large cities – Boston, New York and Seattle – now mandate side underride guards on city-owned and/or contracted trucks, IIHS reports. However, no similar local regulation has been implemented in Atlanta despite its size and the fact its traffic rivals that of the three cities that initiated the local order.
Sources: WRAL, Marianne Karth, Bloomberg, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Righting Injustice, NBC News
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