The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded five of eight of the largest American van-type semitrailer manufacturers top honors in a new ranking recognizing underride guards designed to prevent injury and death caused by rear-end passenger car collisions with long-haul trucks.

“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.

According to the Department of Transportation, just over 4,000 people have been killed in accidents involving underride between 1994 and 2014.

Truck makers that received the accolade – dubbed the Toughguard award – include Great Dane, Manac Inc., Stoughton Trailers LLC, Vanguard National Trailer Corp. and Wabash National Corp. The equipment submitted by these companies withstood testing meant to replicate real-life collisions between a low-riding mid-size car and a high-riding trailer.

The IIHS evaluation is split into three segments that changes the positioning of the car when it strikes the back of the truck. The testing includes collisions at full-width, striking at a 50 percent overlap and a 30 percent, or small overlap, impact. The latter is the most difficult test to pass because guards tend to be weakest at outer edges.

The Toughguard award is the culmination of six years of research and testing.

Great Dane failed the underride test in 2013.

Great Dane failed the underride test in 2013. (Photo: IIHS)

Initially only Manac’s semitrailers passed all three levels of the test but “manufacturers really took our findings to heart and voluntarily improved their guard designs,” Zuby said.

In tests of reworked designs by Great Dane, Stoughton, Vanguard and Wabash, all eight companies passed the first two assessments. The five Toughguard recipients also passed the 30 percent overlap examination.

Trailers made by Hyundai Translead, Strick and Utility failed the small overlap test.

Those manufacturers are working on improved designs, but there is no information on when the equipment will be available in the marketplace, Zuby told Trucks.com.

“We call them every few months to check for a retest,” he said.

The road leading up to the Toughguard award has been long.

In 2009, IIHS began a study focused on underride guards that met the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standards first formulated in the 1980s. Although the regulation is decades old, it is still in place and determines what types of trucks need underride guards and defines their characteristics, including clearance to the ground and strength.

But in its initial research, the agency found that while some guards exceeded the regulations, some were built to barely pass, Zuby said.

In 2011 IIHS published crash tests that compared underride guards on different trucks and submitted a petition to NHTSA requiring stronger guards. Other safety groups followed suit.

Vanguard passing the 50% overlap underride guard test in 2014 (left) vs. failing in 2012

Vanguard passing the 50% overlap underride guard test in 2014 (left) vs. failing in 2012. (Photo: IIHS)

Early crash testing discovered that manufacturers of semitrailers that frequently cross the Canadian border were already built to meet a more stringent standard set by Canada, Zuby said.

“We knew it was possible to make the guards stronger with a little more thought,”  he said.

In 2015, NHTSA announced a new proposal saying it would adopt Canadian standards, which requires stronger guards. But it has yet to move forward with the new rule.

“IIHS has not heard any indication on when it will issue the rule,” Zuby said.

And data show the more time that goes by without tougher standards leaves passengers susceptible to this type of preventable death.

In the time between IIHS’ petition filing in 2011 and NHTSA’s proposal announcement in 2015, the number of passengers killed when the fronts of their vehicles hit the back of trucks jumped 39 percent.

Though murky federal crash data make it hard to pinpoint exactly how many of these crashes involve underride, the rising number of vehicles on the road increases the chance for exposure, safety advocates said.

No one knows what it’s like to be affected by this type of tragedy more than Marianne Karth, who has also petitioned NHTSA for higher standards for underride guards.

Karth’s teenage daughters AnnaLeah and Mary died from injuries in a 2013 underride accident. Karth’s Ford Crown Victoria was hit by a truck, spun, hit again and shoved backwards under another semi-trailer, flattening the rear of the passenger compartment where the children were sitting.

Karth finds the IIHS assessment and new Toughguard awards “very encouraging.”

“This advances the cause because it gives a clear recognition to the manufacturers that voluntarily worked on the design and are able to provide their customers with guards that are stronger than their previous ones that surpassed even the proposed rule,” Karth said.

“It also shows that it can be done, and in a variety of ways with different solutions,” she said. “And some are even offering the retrofit kits so trailers that are already on the road can go beyond the current standard.”

Previously there has been pushback from NHTSA regarding the perceived costs of requiring manufacturers to build stronger guards.

The fact that the Toughguard recipients were able to make the changes at no added cost sends that argument out the door, Karth said.

NHTSA has also had concerns over industry acceptance of tighter standards.

“The industry has responded [to IIHS], so what reason would there be for NHTSA not to move forward,” Karth said.

Related: When Will We Tackle Underride? – The Hidden Dangers in Trucks

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