Experts working to prevent horrific underride truck crashes say federal laws don’t protect motorists from the catastrophic accidents. Underride crashes—often the most gruesome crashes involving tractor-trailers—occur when a smaller vehicle becomes lodged underneath a semi-truck. Underride accidents frequently result in fatalities, but experts say such deaths are preventable.
The Horrors of an Underride Crash
Few people understand the devastation of an underride crash as well as Marianne Karth, who survived her own ordeal but whose two daughters were killed in the same truck accident. Karth was driving a Crown Victoria in 2013 when her car was rear-ended and pushed into the back of a tractor-trailer. Karth’s vehicle spun around and the rear became lodged under the trailer. The back seat of the car—where Karth’s daughters were sitting—was crushed, killing both.
According to investigators, the rear guard on the tractor-trailer Karth’s car hit fell off during the crash.
“It just came off, and the back of the car went under and came into the space where AnnaLeah and Mary were in,” Karth told reporters. “So AnnaLeah died instantly. Mary was taken to the hospital but died a few days later.”
Underride truck accident experts, including the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), have joined forces with people like Karth who have lost loved ones to the horrific crashes. They say that with proper safety laws such accidents could be nearly eliminated.
Truck Safety Measures Not Enough to Protect Motorists
There are laws that require tractor-trailers to carry rearguards, steel bars that are supposed to prevent passenger vehicles from slipping under the trailer, potentially saving lives. According to the IIHS, however, rear guards that are currently in use are unsafe and do little to protect the lives of other motorists. Among the issues with the rear guards are that some have become so rusted that holes have been eaten through them. Underride truck crash prevention advocates say the problem is that the laws aren’t strong enough to ensure safety.
“Every guard we’ve tested is certified to meet the requirement,” said Matthew Brumbelow, IIHS senior research engineer. “But many of them have failed when we test them at 35 miles per hour.”
To get their rear-guards approved, for example, trucking companies merely have to show that the guards can withstand stationary pressure, a far cry from the pressure they would face if they were involved in a collision on a highway.
Despite a petition from the IIHS, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has so far not taken much action—beyond issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking in 2015—to address the issue of underride truck accidents.
In a statement to WUSA9, the NHTSA addressed the issue of underride crashes.
“Through research, computer crash simulations, and analysis of public comments received on our proposal, NHTSA is evaluating federal safety standards to find ways to make these types of crashes more survivable.”
Current Underride Truck Crash Prevention Rules Don’t Require Side Guards
Although current regulations require rear guards, there are no rules requiring side guards. Unfortunately, underride accidents aren’t confined to rear-end collisions. Roya Sadigh was killed in a side underride accident when the BMW she was in became trapped under a tractor-trailer by the truck’s wheel and was then dragged while she was crushed. Her mother, Lois Durso, says the initial collision didn’t kill her daughter, the underride did.
More Advocates Weigh in on Trucking Safety
An editorial for The Baltimore Sun notes that in the case of a side underride accident, seatbelts and airbags have little ability to protect passenger vehicle occupants. The editorial writers argue that the trucking industry has known about the dangers of underride crashes for years, but have failed to do anything substantial to strengthen safety measures.
In their argument for underride truck crash prevention, the writers note that between 1994 and 2014, more than 1,500 people have been killed inside underride collisions alone—that doesn’t count rear underride accidents. Overall in 2015, 4,000 people were killed in crashes involving large trucks. According to Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the number of deaths due to large truck crashes is roughly equal to a commercial airliner crashing every week, yet little attention is given to truck crash safety.
There is a push to make American underride guard requirements stricter, putting them more in line with Canadian requirements (where guards are required to be stronger than in the U.S. and are mandatory on both the rear and side of the truck). Pressure from the trucking industry, however, has resulted in a lack of progress on any such changes to federal regulations, leaving motorists at risk of a devastating accident.
“And the technology to prevent [underride crashes] including side underrides, is now well proven,” the editorial’s authors write. “The only real obstacle is whether the nation’s elected leaders in Washington are willing to require the safety upgrade despite trucking industry opposition.”
Senator Chuck Schumer has joined the call for underride guards after an accident in New York killed four people in two vehicles. The vehicles collided with a milk truck that jackknifed on Interstate 81 in Oswego County earlier in July.
As far as underride truck crash prevention advocates are concerned, when it comes down to saving money by not buying an underride guard for a truck or risking a person’s life, there should be no question about priorities. Unfortunately, for too many motorists and their loved ones, any decision will already be too late.