A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggests the Department of Transportation (DOT) has not done enough to study and prevent semi-truck underride accidents. The crashes are among the most gruesome vehicle accidents and often render passenger vehicle safety features useless. Each year, hundreds of people die in underride crashes, many of which could be prevented by mandating tractor trailers to have side and front underride protection. Despite recommendations about side underride guards, no regulations are in place to require them and the industry has fought back against attempts to address the issue.

GAO Finds More than 200 Fatalities Per Year Linked to Underride Crashes

Underride accidents occur when a passenger vehicle slides underneath the body of a semi-truck. The size difference between passenger cars and tractor trailers makes these types of crashes particularly deadly because the passenger vehicle’s front bumper does not absorb the collision, leading to the possibility of crushing the car. Seatbelts and airbags offer little protection in such a crash if the trailer or truck intrudes into the passenger vehicle’s cabin.

In its report, released on Monday, Apr. 15, 2019, the GAO found that an average of 219 people died in underride crashes from 2008 to 2017. That figure, however, might be low because law enforcement officials across the country log underride accidents in different ways. Unfortunately, that inaccuracy could play a role in the lack of legislation.

“For example, police officers responding to a crash do not use a standard definition of an underride crash and states’ crash report forms vary, with some not including a field for collecting underride data,” the GAO notes.

Inconsistency in reporting might mean that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration does not have adequate or accurate data to support any movement toward regulations involving underride protections. Some officials who responded for the GAO’s underride crash report said they are unclear as to what constitutes an underride crash, making it difficult for them to identify such collisions.

Furthermore, while the reported deaths are less than 1 percent of total traffic fatalities and 5.5 percent of deaths linked to accidents involving large trucks, they still account for an average of 219 lives lost needlessly every year. Officials note that underride crashes are more likely to result in serious injury or death than automobile accidents in which the passenger vehicle’s safety features can protect occupants. At least one state reported that they do not regularly review data involving underride crashes but once they did review data, they realized the underride crashes made up 16 percent of all fatal large truck crashes in that state in 2017.

Underride Guards Could Prevent Deaths

Underride guards are railings along the lower edge of semi-trucks that sit low enough that they prevent passenger cars from sliding under the truck. There are currently proposed regulations for truck trailers which would require rear underride protections that can withstand a crash.

Though legislation requiring side and front underride guards was introduced in Dec. 2017 and new legislation introduced in Mar. 2019, so far little progress has been made in passing any legislation, thanks in part to pushback from the industry.

As far back as 2015, the NHTSA published a notice proposing legislation that would align US underride guard rules with Canadian standards. The standards in Canada mandates rear underride guards that absorb almost four times the energy that is required in the US. No action has been taken on this proposed legislation.

GAO Underride Crash Report Recommendations

Among the recommendations made in the GAO underride crash report are that the DOT should require the NHTSA to provide a standardized definition of underride crashes and educate police departments on identifying and recording underride crashes, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration should require annual rear guard inspections, and the NHTSA should conduct further research on the effectiveness and costs associated with side underride guards.

Parents of Underride Crash Victims Fight for Legislation

Marianne Karth, Eric Hein, and Lois Durso all had children who died in underride crashes. Though they say they support the GAO’s underride crash report, they also note that the GAO does not mandate any deadlines for the Department of Transportation to take action on its recommendations. The DOT has said it agrees with the GAO’s recommendations but has not committed to a timeline for implementing them.

“The relevant question is will there finally be decisive action to save families from the underride tragedy or will we continue to let people die?” Durso said.

Christa Hammack’s daughter was in a passenger vehicle with a friend when they died in an underride crash. According to Hammack, the two girls were killed instantly after colliding with a tractor trailer that crossed four lanes of traffic. She is now working with other families affected by underride crashes to have legislators pass a federal bill mandating side and front guards on tractor trailers.

Lawmakers in Congress introduced the Stop Underrides Act in March 2019. The act would require large trucks to carry front and side guards and would update the standards for rear guards.