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 Trucks.com.
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 Trucks.com.
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 Trucks.com
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 Trucks.com. “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 Trucks.com 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 Trucks.com. “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.”