Underride accidents are among the most catastrophic and horrific types of traffic accidents, killing hundreds of people every year and injuring many more. In recent years, critics have called for increased regulations regarding truck underride safety, hoping to prevent devastating truck accidents from occuring. Meanwhile, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has developed a ranking system to recognize semitrailer manufacturers who have enhanced safety features designed to prevent underride truck crashes. While the award signifies a positive step toward preventing one type of truck accident, some safety advocates say there’s much more work to be done.
What are Underride Crashes?
Underride crashes occur when the body of a passenger vehicle somehow becomes trapped underneath a semi truck. Although underride crashes frequently occur when the front of a car collides with the rear of a semi truck, forcing the nose of the car under the semi’s trailer, underride accidents can happen in a wide range of collisions between semi trucks and passenger vehicles.
Because the car becomes trapped under something much larger and heavier than it, the passengers in the vehicle are at risk of devastating injuries, including decapitation. A report by the Department of Transportation suggests that between 1994 and 2014, more than 4,000 people were killed in accidents that involved an underride, while some critics say more than 200 people are killed each year in underride accidents.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), meanwhile, reports that in 2015, 427 of the 2,646 passenger vehicle occupants who died in large truck crashes were killed when the front of their vehicle hit the back of the truck in front of them.
Victims’ Families Push for Truck Underride Safety
“If there was a plane crash and 200 people died—the government would be all over that,” Lois Durso told NBC News. Durso endured every parent’s nightmare when her 26-year-old daughter, Roya Sadigh, died in an underride crash after the car she was in lost control and became trapped under a semi truck.
Durso began researching truck safety and learned about side guards, which trucks in Europe are equipped with to prevent underride crashes. In addition to protecting other motorists, side guards could also prevent pedestrians and cyclists from being trapped under tractor-trailers. Durso and other safety advocates are now pushing regulators to increase truck underride safety.
“I was very angry—with the trucking manufacturers and also the federal government,” Durso said. “They’re fully aware people are dying as a result of their trailer design. And yet they do nothing about it.”
Marianne Karth also knows the agony that can be caused by an underride crash. Her teenage daughters died from injuries they sustained after the car they were in was pushed backwards underneath a tractor-trailer, crushing the passenger compartment where the girls rode. She too wants to see tougher truck underride safety measures enacted, to prevent more tragedies like the one her family endured.
IIHS Issues Rankings for Trailer Underride Safety
In a move designed to encourage more semtrailer manufacturers to install safety measures that prevent underride truck crashes, the IIHS awarded five manufacturers the top honors in a ranking that recognizes truck underride safety.
“Our research told us that too many people die in crashes with large trucks because underride guards are too weak,” said David Zuby, executive vice president and chief research officer for IIHS.
The IIHS estimates that approximately one-tenth of all highway deaths involve a large truck, and most deaths that involve a large truck and a passenger vehicle are the people in the passenger vehicles, making truck safety an important consideration. Furthermore, the IIHS reports that although trucks have rear underride guards—designed to stop passenger vehicles from sliding underneath a tractor-trailer in a rear-impact crash—the institute’s own research found that even guards that meet federal safety standards have the potential to fail in low-speed crashes, doing little to protect other motorists on the road.
In a February 28, 2011 letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the IIHS petitioned the administration to toughen regulations regarding truck underride safety.
“The current standards allow underride guard designs that fail catastrophically when struck by passenger vehicles at speeds that frequently produce minimal intrusion and injury risk in regulatory and consumer information frontal crash test programs,” the IIHS wrote.
The institute also noted that even passenger vehicles that receive good frontal crash test ratings have the potential for catastrophic underride when they collide with a trailer.
IIHS Toughguard Award
As a result of concerns about truck underride safety, the IIHS developed the Toughguard award to recognize companies that work to prevent underride crashes.
Among the companies that received the Toughguard award were Great Dane, Manac Inc., Stoughton Trailers, Vanguard National Trailer Corp., and Wabash National Corp. Each of those companies submitted equipment that withstood the IIHS’ collision testing.
The institute’s underride crash test program began in 2011, and started with few companies passing the test. The Toughguard award requires each trailer to pass three tests—one in which the collision occurs at full-width (where the car is directly behind the trailer), one at 50 percent overlap (where the front of the car overlaps with the back of the trailer by 50 percent) and one at 30 percent overlap (such as when a car drives by a parked trailer).
“At first, only one of the semitrailers we evaluated passed all three tests—the Manac. Now five trailers do. Manufacturers really took our findings to heart and voluntarily improved their guard designs,” Zuby said.
Industry Pushes Back Against Underride Measures
Despite concerns about truck underride safety from the IIHS and safety advocates, some in the industry have pushed back against side guards, arguing that they are not technologically feasible and can cause a dangerous increase in the weight of a truck.
Safety advocates, however, say the longer the industry pushes back against truck underride safety, the more lives will be put at risk of catastrophic injury.