Underride crashes are among the most fatal and most preventable accidents involving semi-trucks, but despite recommendations from safety agencies, little has been done to prevent them. As a result, members of Congress have taken matters into their own hands, with lawmakers introducing a bipartisan bill that would require trucking companies to implement safety measures to prevent underride crashes. Though the safety measures would go a long way to decreasing the number of fatalities in semi-truck crashes, trucking companies have been notoriously resistant to implement the measures.
Fatal Underride Crashes are Largely Preventable
Underride crashes occur when a passenger vehicle, such as a car, slides beneath a semi-truck or trailer. Due to the size difference between the vehicles, occupants of the passenger vehicle often do not survive an underride crash. In some gruesome accidents, the victims are decapitated by the larger vehicle.
Among those victims whose deaths in underride accidents were widely reported:
- Jayne Mansfield, whose death triggered the first concerns about side and rear guard protection;
- Roya Sadigh, 26, who died when the car she was in spun out and slid under a tractor-trailer; and
- Anna Leah Karth, 17, and Mary Karth, 13, who died in a rear underride crash in 2013.
According to reports, more than 200 people die in underride crashes every year. Safety experts say that number could be much lower if semi-trucks were required to carry adequate underride guards that would prevent smaller vehicles from becoming wedged under the larger ones. Currently, trucks are required to have rearguards, but even those are often improperly maintained and not designed to withstand high-speed crashes.
Although the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended side guards, there are no laws requiring semi-trucks to have them. The NTSB made a non-binding recommendation to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2014, but no regulations were issued, a fact some lawmakers are trying to change. They may have an uphill battle, though, thanks to the transportation industry’s deep pockets.
“I was very angry—with the trucking manufacturers and also the federal government,” said Lois Durso, whose daughter, Roya Sadigh, was killed in an underride accident that she and other experts believe was preventable. “They’re fully aware people are dying as a result of their trailer design. And yet they do nothing about it.”
Lawmakers Propose Bipartisan Bill to Improve Truck Safety
On Tuesday, December 12, 2017, Congressman Steve Cohen, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Marco Rubio, and Congressman Mark DeSaulnier announced underride truck crash legislation introduced in both the House and Senate that requires trucks to carry side and front underride guards. Called the Stop Underrides Act, the legislation also updates standards for rear underride guards and requires the guards to be part of all annual truck inspections.
“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 Senator Gillibrand in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation would save lives, and we should pass it as quickly as possible to keep Americans safe while they’re driving, whether they’re heading to see family and friends for the holidays or driving to work on their morning commute.”
Laurie and Randy Higginbotham joined the lawmakers in announcing the bills. The Higginbothams know all too well the pain of losing a loved one. Their son, Michael, died in an underride accident when his car collided with a tractor-trailer that was making an illegal U-turn.
“We need the trucks,” said Randy Higginbotham in an interview from 2016. “They need to get the goods to where they need to be but there should be some safety features that the trucking industry itself can adopt that keeps all of us in passenger vehicles a little safer, cause we’re no match against them.”
Trucking Industry Opposes Underride Truck Crash Legislation on Side Guards
Even though the NTSB has recommended side guards for years, the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association (TTMA)—the lobbying section of the trucking industry—has previously opposed side guards. In a 2016 letter to the NHTSA, the organization said the guards are “not cost beneficial” and may substantially increase trailer tare weights, thus decreasing the allowable maximum cargo.
Another trucking trade association, the American Trucking Associations (ATA), said that while underride guards may improve safety, it is not sold on the need for a mandate requiring them.
Unfortunately, until trucks have proper underride guards, more lives will likely be lost in preventable truck underride accidents.