Truck Driver’s Widow Pushes to Make Truck Air Bags Mandatory

September 26, 2016 by Clarissa Hawes

Although air bags are credited with saving the lives of thousands of passenger-vehicle occupants annually, traffic safety regulators don’t require the basic safety equipment in medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

There’s no clear answer as to why relatively inexpensive air bags are not required on big trucks. But at least one manufacturer, Volvo Trucks North America, is moving forward with making them standard equipment in the U.S.

“Volvo Trucks has long been an industry leader when it comes to safety, which has been one of our core values since 1927, so it was natural for us to offer air bags as another way to help increase the safety of our drivers,” John Mies, spokesman for Volvo Trucks, told

According to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, approximately 340,000 medium- and heavy-duty trucks are involved in traffic crashes annually in the U.S., resulting in 600 fatalities and 20,000 injured truck drivers.

Sarah VanWasshnova, of Port Orange, Fla., believes an air bag would have saved her husband, Carl VanWasshnova. The 30-year trucking veteran was killed seven years ago in a low-speed crash when his truck veered across the median trying to avoid hitting a tractor-trailer in front of him.

Instead, he crashed into the side of an empty FedEx trailer. While the FedEx driver walked away from the crash, VanWasshnova died when his 2005 Freightliner Columbia collapsed around his cab compartment. Neither truck had an air bag.

The coroner’s report states VanWasshnova died of blunt-force trauma from being crushed by his steering column.

VanWasshnova said she believes that if an air bag had been installed in the steering column of Carl’s truck, he would have lived.

“I know there’s nothing I can do to bring Carl back, but if I can help rekindle a discussion on air bags being mandatory in commercial vehicles, I am happy to do so,” Sarah VanWasshnova told

In the intervening years, Sarah VanWasshnova gained the backing of Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the American Trucking Associations and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association to urge the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to adopt tougher crashworthiness standards.

MAP-21, a 2012 federal highway bill, directed the Department of Transportation to conduct a commercial truck crashworthiness standards study. The study considered roof strength, air bags, occupant-protection standards and other issues. NHTSA subsequently chose not to take action on air bags.

The agency “is not currently looking into rulemaking activity to expand required air-bag installation beyond light vehicles,” NHTSA spokesman José Alberto Uclés told

Safety experts are divided on whether air bags should be required for commercial vehicles.

“The question of whether air bags should be installed in trucks may need a more detailed cost-benefit analysis,” said Dan Blower, a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute scientist and coauthor of a 2013 study on seat belts and frontal air bags in trucks.

Authors of the study were unable to determine the effectiveness of air bags in big rigs because so few have them.  Instead, Blower said, they extrapolated data using passenger vehicle information. And the safety benefit was measured against seat belts, which were clearly more important, he said.

“Seat belts are the primary safety mechanism to protect truck occupants in crashes,” Blower told “Air bags cannot replace seat belts, though they can supplement and have an incremental benefit. Safety belts should and must be worn by seated truck occupants, and safety restraints should be used for sleeper berth occupants.”

Other safety groups have not looked at the issue because their focus is on passenger car occupants.

“The number of deaths to large truck occupants in crashes is relatively low compared with passenger vehicle occupants,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “And large trucks have a built-in advantage in protecting their occupants because of their size and weight.”

The insurance industry trade group has not his considered looking into studying the effectiveness of air bags on medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

Two UPS drivers who were not authorized by the shipping company to talk about the issue, told they were unaware that air bags were not standard equipment on their trucks.

Bud Caldwell, president of Northgate Petroleum in Chico, Calif., said he fears air bags in big trucks might deploy in hard braking or minor-impact incidences, “precluding the driver from steering around the accident.”

“If you could assure that wouldn’t happen, I can’t think of a reason not to have them,” Caldwell said. “In an imminent crash, it could be a lifesaver.”

Some truck manufacturers are developing more sophisticated air bag systems.

Scania Trucks, headquartered in Södertälje, Sweden, introduced a rollover side curtain air bag for heavy trucks last month. It is a first side curtain system in the trucking industry, said Örjan Åslund, spokesman for Scania Trucks.

The side curtain air bags, a Scania trucks option, are designed to reduce the number of truckers’ injuries or deaths in rollover crashes where they can be crushed by their own vehicle, he said.

“If the truck reaches a certain angle, in combination with a certain speed, the truck ‘knows’ it is about to overturn and the airbags are released,” Åslund told “They are also released if the other air bags, like the one in the steering wheel, is released since typical frontal collisions might also lead to overturns or evasive maneuvers.”

Volvo Trucks, also Swedish-owned, uses a designed refined in passenger cars and puts its air bags in the steering wheels.

As more truck manufacturers begin to offer air bags in their vehicles, Sarah VanWasshnova continues to push lawmakers, safety regulators and other government agencies to examine the air-bag issue.

“They seem more concerned about preventing crashes with thousands of dollars in new crash avoidance technology on trucks,” she said, “but not about saving the truckers’ lives by installing a $600 air bag.”

10 Responses

  1. Chris N.

    The trucks have airbags. The company that owns the trucks have them turned off. Why, because they are more worried about the truck being able to be repaired after it is wrecked, bevause if the airbag deploys, the truck is now considered a salvaged vehicle that can’t be repaired. They don’t care about the drivers safety .

  2. Ron Sims

    Actually, Scania has always been the lead truckmaker in heavy truck air bag supplemental restraint systems (SRS).

  3. John Hernandez

    On 8/16/2016 i was in an accident in a 2016 Freightliner Cascadia company truck and it was equipped with an SRS airbag but it did not deployed upon impact and i suffered 2 protruding disc and i required a double cervical neck fusion. Who should be responsible SRS.

  4. E

    Federal government better think about truck driver safety before they end up w/
    Lawsuits they can’t win

  5. Justin Lee Porter

    Pretty sure you want a airbag if another semi comes over and hits you head on. Not all semis are just on highways. Two way lanes are dangerous.

    • Lawrence

      It simply does not make sense to not have airbags in all vehicles; regardless of its size or weight. It is; as everything else is; all about someone not making enough or losing money. Once again we’ve placed the value of “lives” 2nd to the value of $!!!The powers that be; in other words, the organizations that regulate vehicle safety see it (or don’t see it) as beneficial. Further, someone is calculating lost or depleted revenue if implemented.

  6. Sarah VanWasshnova

    This is Sarah V. I thank you for publishing this article. I hope the process continues, and that something is done to improve drivers’ safety, and that more lives are saved and fewer long term injuries occur because manufacturers are finally convinced to do something!

    • Kathy

      Hello Sarah my name is Kathy I lost my father a 45 yr accident free driver in a trucking accident in 2016 I still can’t get over it . He was driving for YRC in a 2009 Volvo day cab hauling a set of doubles. The accident was so unexplained I viewed the 5 second video and it showed an SUV abruptly pulled into my dads lane causing my dad to steer away from SUV but a partial impact did occurred causing the steer axel to break leaving my dad with just brakes which caused Jacknife pushing set of doubles and day cab up an embankment which caused the semi to rest on driver side which my poor father was pinned causing his arm to be amputated. He often said those trucks were like cages all metal no padding and of course no airbags , the man that caused this accident was not charged and may have received a settlement but my poor dad was pinned a good 45 to an hr alive talking to another driver . Later he went with Jesus . I beleive my father would be alive today if that truck had air bags . I want to have a voice like you. I am a former trucker I Quit because of What happened to my dad. I tried lawyers talking to Volvo and my dads company YRC but they are so death . Thank you

  7. Dorothy Dias

    My husband died in a truck driving accident. A blunt blow to the chest. I was unaware that the trucks were not equipped with air bags. He was in the defense industry for years but after being laid off of his job for 30 plus I suggested truck driving. I thought it was safe


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