A Big Threat From Big Rigs

If you are involved in an accident with a tractor-trailer, it is obvious that you have the best odds. It’s not only the 18-wheelers’ size that is dangerous for cars, but also their height.

Truck underride accidents, which result in the deaths of approximately 1,000 people every year, could be prevented if trucks and trailers had rear, side, and front underguards to stop cars from sliding underneath. The regulatory pendulum could swing even further in this direction as a Laredo jury, Texas, will hear arguments that Ricardo Maravilla (19-year-old) is still alive today if the tractor-trailer 18-wheel he was in collision with three years ago had an underguard. Underride crashes are when an automobile is partially or completely submerged in a trailer or truck. These accidents increase the risk of death by causing severe injury or decapitation to the passengers. According to statistics from Arlington’s Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (a non-profit research organization), automobile passengers are most often killed in fatal underride accidents.

U.S. safety advocates lobby for underguards ever since 1967, when actress Jayne Mansfield died in an underride accident. Although a 1996 rule by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), requires all trucks made after January 1998 to have rear-underguards, it is not retroactive. This means that approximately 2 million older vehicles are not required have rear underguards. This regulation does not require either side or front underguards. Julie Rochman, spokeswoman for Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, calls underride accidents “a very real problem”. She says that although mandating rear underguards for trailers and trucks has prevented some deaths, it is not enough.

She says that the improved rear underguard rule is a great help but not for all vehicles. She also stated that “a large number of underride accidents are not from the rear but from the front or side,” and stressed the importance of having front and side-underguards. Side and front collisions account to 77% of all underride accidents. Since 1984, the British government has required side- and rear underguards because of this danger. Rochman states that manufacturers don’t need to wait for these guards to be installed in trailers and trucks. They should do it.

Side underguards will cost approximately $500 per truck or trailer. A 1999 survey by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and the Consumer Federation of America found that 78% of Americans would pay more for goods sent by trucks in return for safety improvements like rear, side and front underguards. Richard Bowling, president, Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association, Alexandria, Va. says manufacturers can’t just do it without any regulations. He says, “You need government input to determine the requirements that need to be met.” “Absent this, we don’t know where we should go [and] we wait for them to suggest side guards.” Bowling states that “all trucks and trailers made after January 1998 have rear underguards.” However, there is no plan for sideguards. Our members have been advised to install rearguards starting in April 1994.

Gerald Donaldson, PhD is the senior research director at advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington. The NHTSA regulation, however, is “completely insatisfactory” as it fails to address the issue of underride accidents. Donaldson states that underride accidents are an “inadequately recognised problem” and that the number fatalities and serious injuries due to them are “radically underestimated.” “What we now have is a junky device attached to the back of a truck. It’s too weak and too high. I am still partly concerned that the vehicle could still slip underneath these guards in some crash situations,” he said. He says that side- and frontguards are important as there are a lot of vehicles under trucks. Rothman says that although some steps have been taken, there is still much to do. Rothman says that “we are part way there” and “we may as well go all the way.”

Updated 01/24/22