Underride crashes are among the deadliest and most horrific crashes on U.S. roads. They occur when a passenger vehicle collides with a big rig and slides underneath the larger vehicle, becoming wedged. Occupants in the passenger vehicle are at risk of catastrophic injuries and fatalities in such accidents are common. In fact, one recent news report suggested that the number of deaths involving passenger vehicles and semi-trucks is at a 10-year high.
Senators Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-NY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) sponsored legislation designed to protect motorists from such underride crashes. At the same time they introduced their underride legislation, a companion bill was introduced in the House by Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA). The legislation, introduced on December 12, 2017, is called the Stop Underrides Act of 2017, and as of April 26, 2018, it sat in the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, while advocates of the bill fight against trucking industry associations who do not want the bill enacted.
Difficult to Know How Many Underride Crashes Occur Each Year
The Stop Underrides Act of 2017 was designed “To reduce the number of preventable deaths and injuries caused by underride crashes, to improve motor carrier and passenger motor vehicle safety, and for other purposes.”
Currently, trucks are required to carry rear underride guards, which prevent passenger vehicles from becoming wedged underneath a semi-truck in situations where the passenger vehicle hits the big rig from behind. The issue, according to safety advocacy groups, is that regulations requiring rear underride guards are 20 years old and outdated. Furthermore, the underride guards are often poorly maintained and not able to withstand a crash at highway speed.
A report from WUSA 9 suggests that the number of fatalities linked to passenger vehicle collisions with semi-trucks is at a 10-year high, but because there is no standardized reporting for underride crashes, it is impossible to know for sure how many of those crashes are underride accidents. The WUSA report, however, examined published accident reports and found that up to April 26, 2018, there were at least 25 underride accidents in 20 states, resulting in 20 deaths and 11 serious injuries.
Stop Underrides Act of 2017
In response to the high number of preventable deaths in underride accidents, the senators proposed the Stop Underrides Act of 2017 (Bill S. 2219). The Findings and Purposes section of the bill notes that underride crashes are a “significant public health and safety threat,” and states that hundreds of preventable deaths and serious injuries were caused by underride crashes. Furthermore, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended that tractor-trailers have rear, side and front underride guards to prevent such accidents.
“With so many unpredictable accidents on the road, underride guards are an easy solution for protecting people and preventing them from dying when a car collides with a truck,” said Gillibrand.
The underride legislation would require front and side underride guards on trucks and would also update the standards for rear underride guards. All annual inspections would be required to include the underride guards, while the Department of Transportation would review underride standards every five years to ensure they remained up-to-date.
“The Stop Underrides Act is a long-overdue solution to a long-standing safety problem. Every year hundreds of people are needlessly killed or severely injured in truck underride crashes,” said Jacqueline Gillan, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “The National Transportation Safety Board has issued multiple recommendations for improved rear underride guards and for side and front underride protection systems. It is now time for action.”
Proposed Underride Legislation Supported by Grieving Mothers
Both Marianne Karth and Lois Durso lost loved ones to underride crashes. They not only support the proposed underride legislation, but they have also fought hard to get lawmakers to pass safety laws requiring guards. Both have traveled to Washington to speak with lawmakers and have attended trucking conferences and meetings with safety groups in the hope of improving trucking safety.
“This is grief driven,” Durso said. “We both feel the weight and the burden of an underride tragedy, we have felt the pain of it first hand [sic] and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen to other families.”
Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association Lobbies against Stop Underrides Act
Despite the support of safety advocacy groups and people whose lives were devastated by underride accidents, the Stop Underrides Act of 2017 has not received across the board support. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association sent a letter to Gillibrand and Rubio opposing the proposed legislation and calling underride guards “costly devices” with “no proven record of enhancing safety.” The organization argued that the legislation could cause accidents and cause financial hardships.
In 2016, the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association (TTMA) sent a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) arguing that guards could weaken a trailer or increase the trailer’s weight. The association stated it would support regulations regarding side impact guards if the guards became “justified and technologically feasible.”
A 2017 study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, however, suggests that properly built guards would save lives across the United States.