Truck Underride Prevention Research Too Long Neglected; How Long Will This Highway Carnage Continue?


(photo of our amazingly expressive Mary letting the world know her displeasure)

For far too long, the focus has disproportionately been on crash prevention solutions –at the expense of seriously examining the potential for innovative underride prevention solutions to prevent death when a truck crash actually does occur.

I just became aware of a research paper published in 1996 which clearly showed the potential for more effective underride protection: DEVELOPMENT AND TESTING OF ENERGY ABSORBING REAR UNDERRUN BARRIERS FOR HEAVY VEHICLES by George Rechnitzer  (presented at the 1996 International Technical Conference on the Enhanced Safety of Vehicles in Melbourne, Australia, which is sponsored by NHTSA).

Furthermore, George Rechnitzer, a professor and researcher from Australia who has done research with Transport and Road Safety Research (TARS) authored this dissertation in 2003: The Improvement of Heavy Vehicle Design To Reduce Injury Risk In Crashes With Other Road Users (2003)v=8b6a69875e67767ca2a4

Please take note of the insight into truck crash fatalities which he describes in the Introduction (pp. 9-10):

“The conspicuous slow progress in reducing well-known and solvable hazards, is well illustrated by crashes involving heavy vehicles. Problems with heavy vehicle design
have been documented for decades, as illustrated by this 1928 Times newspaper report
(Times, 1928):

“‘Dr F.J Waldo, the senior Coroner for London, stated yesterday that
during the past year he had held 63 inquiries into deaths due to road
accidents. Deaths were caused in 20 cases by lorries or commercial vans –
without side life guards which are compulsory on motor omnibuses. Nine
deaths were caused by private motor vehicles and eight by motor
omnibuses. Pedal cycles caused eight largely on account of skidding and
the fixture of a wheel in the grove of the tramlines. There were also six
deaths by horse vehicles, five by taxicabs, four by steam lorries two by
charabancs and one by fire engine. One sixth of the number occurred
among children and young people in the city.’

“Since that time, heavy vehicle design has not improved significantly in regard to
reducing their harm potential in crashes with other road users. In Australia, heavy
vehicle crashes contributed around 18% of road deaths overall, representing in the 10
years 1983 to 1993 around 4000 fatalities and 17000 seriously injured. Most at risk are
the “other road users” making up 80% of these fatalities.

“This thesis’ findings, based on the author’s extensive in-depth crash investigations and
literature review, identify that the lack of compatibility, and aggressiveness of heavy
vehicle design is a major causal factor leading to the over-representation of heavy
vehicles in serious injury and fatal crashes. These findings counter the commonly held
notions maintaining that the main problem is the mass of the heavy vehicle – a factor
that is not readily amenable to change. Importantly, the study clearly identified that
design changes to heavy vehicles can be effective in reducing the injury risk to other
road users.

“This body of the thesis presents the author’s work on the development of applied
countermeasures involving the design, and crash testing of effective rear underrun
barriers, both rigid and energy absorbing. The energy absorbing system developed is
innovative as it uses a fibreglass tube as the crushable medium contained with two
concertinaing steel tubes. The Research provides the basis for the development of new
performance criteria for effective rear underrun barriers catering for centred and offset impacts. At the time this work on the new system was being developed, it was the first of its type (to the author’s knowledge) in the world.

“The thesis concludes with presenting the important concept that crash protection for
occupants is a function of the nature of the interface between the impacting vehicles
and /or the person. This hypothesis provides an alternate perspective on what is feasible
in occupant protection in severe impact scenarios. It clearly shows that contrary to a
common view in road safety, vehicle mass per se is not the major determinate of injury
outcomes. Indeed this thesis demonstrates that injury protection is feasible against high mass vehicles be they trucks, trams or trains, by appropriate design of the interface between impacting objects.

Here are crash tests of the underride prevention protection designed by George Rechnitzer:

Here are additional research papers published by George Rechnitzer (in conjunction with other researchers):

Here’s a photo of AnnaLeah in 1996 —  when much of this research was available but apparently largely ignored — and Mary was a twinkle in her daddy’s eye.

11 Baby AnnaLeah one-year in field

So many lives could have been saved. If only. . . And why has this unconscionable* situation been allowed to go on for so long?! Enough is enough!

* excessive, unreasonable, unwarranted, uncalled for, unfair, inordinate, immoderate, undue, inexcusable, unforgivable, unnecessary, needless; informal over the top

You might be enlightened by the history of federal rulemaking on underride guards (found in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s testimony in May 2009, in which they call for tougher underride guard standards) (pasted below):

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

** And how many deaths due to underride crashes are underreported? For example, ours was listed on FARS (NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System) as “Passenger Compartment Intrusion Unknown.”

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has been relentlessly drawing attention to this issue for some time now, including this video:

IIHS Status Reports with articles on underride guards:

  1. This issue featured our story & petition to DOT:

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