A bipartisan measure to mandate guard rails on truck trailers that prevent cars from sliding under, killing or injuring passengers, is making its way through Congress.
The Stop Underrides Act of 2017 was introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D- N.Y.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as well as Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.).
It would require underride guards to be fitted on the sides of trailers and on the front of trucks. Both currently are optional safety measures. The bill also seeks to strengthen rear guards, which have been mandatory on trailers since 1953. Rear guard standards have not been updated since 1998.
“With so many unpredictable accidents on the road, underride guards are an easy solution for protecting people and preventing them from dying when a car collides with a truck,” Gillibrand said.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that 1,475 people in passenger vehicles died in collisions involving tractor-trailers in 2016. Of those killed, 295 passengers were in a vehicle that hit the side of a semi, and 238 passengers died when their vehicle struck the rear. Front collisions caused 915 passenger deaths, and 27 people died when their vehicles hit an unknown part of the truck, according to IIHS data.
The data do not reveal who was at fault. They also do not specify which collisions involved vehicles sliding under the tractor-trailers.
“Underride crashes don’t need to happen, they are preventable,” Russ Rader, a spokesman for IIHS, told Trucks.com. “Side underride guards will save lives.”
In late 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a regulatory proposal to upgrade rear-impact guard requirements. The rule sought to align U.S. standards with the more stringent rules that Canada has in place.
However, the agency has yet to move forward with it.
“Through research, computer crash simulations and analysis of public comments received on our proposal, [we are] evaluating federal safety standards to find ways to make these types of crashes more survivable,” a NHTSA representative told Trucks.com.
The agency is currently awaiting research results from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute on side underride protection on trailers that was scheduled to be completed in late 2017. Until the report is released, NHTSA will withhold its final assessment.
The agency “will continue to consider innovative approaches to prevent crashes and expedite safety advances that could occur through the formal regulatory process,” NHTSA said.
The bill proposes that rear and side underride guards must be designed and tested to prevent a vehicle traveling 35 mph from sliding under the trailer.
The standard would apply to trailers, semis and single-unit trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds.
In May, IIHS conducted a 35-mph crash test using a passenger vehicle and a trailer equipped with a side guard. When the test vehicle struck the side of the 53-foot big rig, the panel bent but stopped the vehicle from sliding underneath.
The panel manufacturer — AirFlow Detector —doesn't make underride guards for the front of semis, which is included in the legislation, said Alex Martineau, the company’s director of sales. AirFlow Detector’s side panels weigh about 800 pounds each and cost between $3,000 and $4,000 for both panels.
The Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association opposes mandating side underride guards on trailers, saying they are not cost-effective and may add weight, which could weaken the trailers.
Some trailer manufacturers have taken proactive steps to strengthen rear guards. In March, IIHS recognized five North American semitrailer manufacturers with its new Toughguard award, including Great Dane, Manac Inc., Stroughton Trailers, Vanguard National Trailer Corp. and Wabash National Corp.
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents approximately 150,000 small-business truckers, is still reviewing the legislation and doesn’t yet have a position on the issue, said spokeswoman Norita Taylor.
The American Trucking Associations is also waiting for the results of NHTSA’s underride report that will be finalized once Texas A&M’s research is complete.
“We are looking to NHTSA to examine the technology and report out, a process that is happening now,” Jeremy Kirkpatrick, ATA spokesman, told Trucks.com. “ATA has supported efforts to strengthen rear underride guards in the past, based on data from years of study by NHTSA and the experiences of our members.”
NHTSA is already examining the potential benefits and problems with side underride guards, and we believe they should be able to continue with their work, Kirkpatrick said.
At a Dec. 20 Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, Gillibrand questioned Chris Spear, ATA’s chief executive, about his concerns with the underride legislation, particularly about adding side guards to trailers. Spear expressed concern about the additional weight of the panels and whether they would compromise the structural integrity of the trailer.
“You don’t want to solve a safety problem by creating another one,” Spear said at the hearing.
Airflow Deflector said that its side panel — the AngelWing — works in “harmony with existing trailer designs with no effect on the trailer structure or durability.”
At the hearing, Spear also said that the added weight of the panels may force truckers to haul less freight. Truckers can haul up to 80,000 pounds.
This is a concern that James Maxwell, a 25-year trucker from Chillicothe, Mo., has if side guards become mandatory on big rigs.
“The government is trying to create situations where we get better fuel mileage, but then it wants to add another 1,600 pounds of weight to my truck,” Maxwell told Trucks.com. “This could also reduce the amount of freight that I can haul.”
The biggest issue if side guards become mandatory is navigating trailers into tight docks, said Jimmy Nevarez, an independent trucker from Chino, Calif.
Nevarez said the additional weight doesn’t bother him, and he supports more stringent rear-guard standards on trailers.
“I have seen the rear guards completely turn to butter when a car runs under the rear end of one of those guards,” he said. “That’s something that definitely needs to be looked at.”
But there will be some technical issues with the side guards.
“My trucks go into some really steep docks in downtown Los Angeles and [elsewhere in] Southern California, and we already have problems with the aerodynamic trailer skirts that are required,” Nevarez told Trucks.com.
The side guards also are strong and require reinforcement, which means they will cost more to replace, Nevarez said. “It’s also going to be more susceptible to getting hit when we back into tight docks,” he said.
The bill also would require that all underride guards be inspected periodically. If the guards fail to pass inspection, truckers could be placed out of service until the equipment is repaired or replaced. The bill directs the Department of Transportation to review underride standards every five years as advancements in new technology improve.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, approximately 4,000 people have been killed in crashes involving underride between 1994 and 2014. Of that number, around 1,530 were related to side underride crashes.
Marianne Karth and Lois Durso know firsthand the devastation of losing their daughters in underride crashes involving tractor-trailers.
Karth’s teenage daughters AnnaLeah and Mary died from injuries sustained in a May 2013 rear underride crash. Karth’s Ford Crown Victoria was hit by a truck, spun and was shoved backwards under another semi-trailer, flattening the rear compartment where her children were sitting.
Durso's daughter, Roya Sadigh, was driving in a blizzard when her car skidded out of control and slid under the side of a tractor-trailer in 2004.
Since their daughters’ deaths, Karth and Durso have been advocating for legislative and regulatory reform that would mandate side underride guards and strengthen existing rear underride guard standards.
They “quickly developed a bond” after meeting in May and immediately started working on draft legislation aimed at preventing underride crashes, Karth said.
Karth said she sent the draft of the legislation — called the Roya, AnnaLeah and Mary Comprehensive Underride Protection Act of 2017 — to Gillibrand’s office in July. This was following an accident on Interstate 81 in New York in which four people were killed after their two vehicles slid under the side of a jackknifed truck.
Gillibrand’s staff reached out shortly thereafter.
The language in the bill largely mirrors what she and Durso wrote in their draft, Karth said.
“This is such encouraging news,” Karth told Trucks.com. “It’s bittersweet because if there was already better protection in place I might not have lost my daughters.”
“I am all about being a vigilant voice for vulnerable victims of vehicle violence,” she said. “Especially because for too many years no one has pursued a resolution of this known problem.”