Underride Guards: Can we “sit down at the table together” and work this out?

Underride guards Great Dane trip 019

The thoughts below are also expressed in this YouTube video:

I find myself in the unenviable position of speaking up on behalf of all travelers on the road who are vulnerable and could—when they least expect it—become the next victim of an underride crash.

Jerry and I had the opportunity, on June 25, to tour the Research & Design Center of Great Dane, a trailer manufacturer. As their guests, we were able to spend the entire morning hearing about what they are doing with regard to quality control and safety, including underride guards which they voluntarily produce to meet or even exceed Canadian standards—thus surpassing current U.S. federal standards. We were able to ask questions and share our concerns about the inadequate federal standards for underride guards (otherwise known as rear impact guards).

We are perhaps better suited to ask those questions than just about anyone. After all, we had two daughters die because the car they were in rode under the back of a semitrailer.

It was an informative day. And we heard what seemed to be genuine comments that, “Cost is not a factor,” and, “Safety is important to us,” and, “We are not competitive about safety.” But what we did not see was a tangible plan to carry out their verbal commitment to create the best possible underride protection.

We provided them with several documents (all of them being public information) which included a study which was published in 2010 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21512906) and indicated the ways in which underride guards were failing. There was also a March 2011 IHHS publication (http://www.iihs.org/iihs/sr/statusreport/article/46/2/1 and http://www.iihs.org/iihs/sr/statusreport/article/46/2/2 ) which reported on crash tests performed on major trailer manufacturers—indicating areas where their underride guards failed to withstand crashes. The third document was a similar report, published in March 2013 (http://www.iihs.org/iihs/news/desktopnews/new-crash-tests-underride-guards-on-most-big-rigs-leave-passenger-vehicle-occupants-at-risk-in-certain-crashes), on another round of crash tests in which the majority of the manufacturers were, once more, unable to pass all of the tests. (And here is a report by the NTSB on this topic from April 2014: http://www.ntsb.gov/doclib/recletters/2014/H-14-001-007.pdf .)

Now, it is understandable, amid the multitude of demands and the tyranny of the urgent, that—without a ready solution, in fact, one which would require time and money to develop—this problem has not been given much attention. But, if those who bear responsibility for making sure that this problem gets solved (one way or another) had lost two of their beloved children—or any other loved one—I can guarantee you that they would have moved heaven and earth to find a way to prevent underride.

What makes it even more distressing is that there are many individuals and organizations, who truly seem concerned about safety, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and the trailer manufacturers. Yet, from what I can see, very little communication has taken place to move this problem forward from point A (guards that fail and result in death and/or horrific injuries) to Point B (coming up with a better design that will provide the best protection possible).

Great Dane, one of the major trailer manufacturers, observed that they passed all but one of the quasi-static crash tests—the narrow overlap. Great Dane also noted that their guard appeared to perform better on the full overlap test than Manac’s (which was the only company to pass all three tests in 2013). So Great Dane does not want to make a change which will strengthen one section of their guard but weaken another section. That’s understandable.

So, tell me: Why aren’t we getting anywhere? What will it take for an improved design to be researched and developed?

IIHS has done extensive quasi-static crash tests as well as analysis of Large Truck Crash information, and they are, in fact, champing at the bit—hoping to do further testing as improvements are made. Yet, we are told, Great Dane has not yet seen the details of their previous crash test results.

We have found DOT to be very cooperative and interested in moving forward to introduce safety measures. We know that political debate can often tie their hands and cause delays. At the same time, we are told that NHTSA has not responded to repeated petitions by IIHS for improved underride guard standards: http://www.iihs.org/media/c7069aa3-c4bd-4fd7-bcc5-1b0c7990d15e/-238847309/Petitions/petition_2011-02-28.pdf

Great Dane, one of the major trailer manufacturers, tells us that safety is a priority to them. They even told us that they want to know how they can petition NHTSA to improve the underride guard standards. But the unfortunate reality is that there is not yet a new design; there is no improved guard. And Great Dane represents perhaps 12% of the market. What about the rest of the trailer manufacturers; when will they have a design which will produce safer guards?

On our trip home from Savannah to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Jerry and I rehashed the morning’s events. We spent considerable time observing the many trailers which we saw on the road, and I took numerous photos of the various designs and conditions of the underride guards.

While at Great Dane, Jerry had made a few suggestions for improving the guard design. He suggested putting foam in the hollow horizontal bar. Another idea he put forth was to install panels with airbags to the existing guard—providing an additional barrier/energy absorption solution. Whether with these ideas or something else, surely, a more effective design can be created.

So, in trying to process what we learned at the meeting, I kept thinking over and over: Could an independent work group of qualified individuals, such as an engineering school, take on the challenge of creating such a design—which could then be tested by IHHS, proposed to NHTSA to aid in defining improved rear impact guard specifications, and provided to all trailer manufacturers? Could we do some kind of crowd funding or grant proposal to obtain the necessary funds to support such an endeavor? Could we perhaps even approach the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association (TTMA) and ask them to seek contributions from their members for such a project?

Is cost truly not a factor? Is safety really a priority and not a competitive matter? Is it possible to improve the communication necessary to prevent more unnecessary deaths? Can we “sit down at the table together” and work this out?

Marianne Karth, June 26, 2014

(Note: I thought it was interesting that, in the photo above, a circle appeared around the very area of underride guard weakness about which we are concerned.)

See the testimony in May 2009 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in which they call for tougher underride guard standards and with an attachment of the history of federal rulemaking on underride guards (pasted below): http://tinyurl.com/phlaqon

The history of Federal rulemaking on truck underride guards:

  • 1953 Interstate Commerce Commission adopts rule requiring rear underride guards on trucks and trailers but sets no strength requirements.
  • 1967 National Highway Safety Bureau (NHSB), predecessor to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), indicates it will develop a standard for truck underride guards.
  • 1969 NHSB indicates it will conduct research on heavy vehicle underride guard configurations to provide data for the preparation of a standard. In the same year the Federal Highway Administration publishes a proposal to require trailers and trucks to have strong rear-end structures extending to within 18 inches of the road surface.
  • 1970 NHSB says it would be “impracticable” for manufacturers to engineer improved underride protectors into new vehicles before 1972. The agency considers an effective date of January 1, 1974 for requiring underride guards with energy-absorbing features as opposed to rigid barriers.
  • 1971 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommends that NHTSA require energy-absorbing underride and override barriers on trucks, buses, and trailers. Later in the same year NHTSA abandons its underride rulemaking, saying it has “no control over the vehicles after they are sold” and “it can only be assumed that certain operators will remove the underride guard.” The Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety (BMCS), predecessor to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, considers a regulatory change that would prohibit alteration of manufacturer-installed equipment. This would nullify the major reason NHTSA cited for abandoning the proposed underride standard.
  • 1972 NTSB urges NHTSA to renew the abandoned underride proposal.
  • 1974 US Secretary of Transportation says deaths in cars that underride trucks would have to quadruple before underride protection would be considered cost beneficial.
  • 1977 IIHS testifies before the Consumer Subcommittee of the US Senate Commerce Committee, noting that devices to stop underride have been technologically available for years. IIHS tests demonstrate that a crash at less than 30 mph of a subcompact car into a guard meeting current requirements results in severe underride. IIHS also demonstrates the feasibility of effective underride guards that do not add significant weight to trucks. IIHS petitions NHTSA to initiate rulemaking to establish a rear underride standard. The agency agrees to reassess the need for such a standard and later in the year announces plans to require more effective rear underride protection. BMCS publishes a new but weak proposal regarding underride protection.
  • 1981 NHTSA issues a proposal to require upgraded underride protection.
  • 1986 IIHS study reveals that rear guards designed to prevent cars from underriding trucks appear to be working well on British rigs.
  • 1987 European underride standard is shown to reduce deaths caused by underride crashes.
  • 1996 NHTSA finally issues a new standard, effective 1998.

IIHS, 2009


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