I am having a difficult time getting this post started. I shared about it briefly here and Russell Mokhiber graciously shared our story as well. Now I want to give a more in-depth report of our trip to Washington, DC, on March 3 and 4 to deliver over 20,000 Vision Zero Petitions. I want to be able to report that I am hopeful about the impact of our Vision Zero Petition. But I am mostly frustrated and angry.
There were some encouraging meetings with legislative offices. But there were no commitments, no promises of action to be taken. Traffic safety is not high on their list of priorities. And, despite the almost 33,000 traffic crash deaths in our country each year, Traffic Safety/Vision Zero is not even on the list of Issues on whitehouse.gov.
During our time in Washington, after sharing the story of our crash time after time, we got into a discussion with someone who has observed and testified about the underride crash problem countless times. We actually ended up, as a result, getting hold of some photos of the underride guard which failed to guard our car from riding under the trailer in front of us when another truck hit us and spun us around and hit us again backwards into that truck. We had not previously seen those photos.
And they were disturbing–adding fuel to the fire of my frustration at the utter lack of genuine responsibility on anyone’s part to protect us from Death by Underride. And that includes the three branches of our government: Legislative; Executive/Administrative; and Judicial.
In fact, while we were in Washington on March 3 and 4, we made the rounds of the Legislative branch–visiting with Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) as well as staff of several other legislators. I am not putting much stock in them taking immediate positive action to advance traffic safety. But we have knocked on those doors and appreciate the time they took to listen to us. We will continue to follow up with our contacts and ask them to stand up with us for safety.
Additionally, we have petitioned the Executive branch–both through President Obama and the White House, as well as the administrative arm of DOT/NHTSA. Though, of course, I think that the problem needs to be addressed inter-departmentally to acknowledge and address traffic fatalities and serious injuries as a public health and labor problem, as well as transportation, through a White House Vision Zero Task Force.
We delivered the 20,000+ Vision Zero Petition signatures both in the form of the Vision Zero Petition Book to each DOT policy official with whom we met and via a binder with all of the signatures and the letter to Secretary Foxx (the latter printed for us by the Care2 Petition Site).
We also left them with copies of the Vision Zero Petition Book 2016 to deliver to:
- President Obama at the White House
- Director Donovan, Office of Management & Budget (OMB)
- Secretary Foxx, Department of Transportation
- Administrator Rosekind, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
- Administrator Darling, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
With President Obama’s copy of the Vision Zero Petition Book, we enclosed a letter which our granddaughter had decided that she wanted to write to the president when she saw the stack of books at our house and asked what we were going to do with them. Here is her letter (dictated to me):
(I thought it was interesting that Vanessa’s drawings of her aunts had no mouths. In fact, it is all-too-true that they cannot speak up on their own behalf. Also, she wanted to see photos of AnnaLeah and Mary to make sure that she got their hair and eye color correct.)
We talked with DOT policy officials about our petition in which we pleaded, along with over 20,000 other individuals, that they address the extensive traffic safety and public health problem of crash fatalities and serious injuries. At an average of 33,000 crash deaths each year, Death by Motor Vehicle is one of the leading causes of death. We requested that they adopt a Vision Zero Rulemaking Policy and that they seek such authority from the White House through action from President Obama, whom we are asking to:
- Set a National Vision Zero Goal.
- Establish a White House Vision Zero Task Force to guide us in achieving that goal as a nation.
- Sign a Vision Zero Executive Order to ensure that DOT can adopt Vision Zero rulemaking policies, which would allow them to issue and enforce rules and safety standards that genuinely protect human life.
Included in our Petition Letter to Secretary Foxx was our request that they apply such a rulemaking policy specifically in two ways–which will address two safety problems of particular concern to us, as well as set the stage for more effectively addressing countless other traffic safety issues. These are the three petition requests:
1. Change rulemaking policy to move away from a cost/benefit model and adopt a more humanistic, rational Vision Zero safety strategy model which will impact all DOT safety regulations;
2. Apply Vision Zero principles initiating rulemaking to require forward collision avoidance and mitigation braking on all new large trucks; and
3. Apply Vision Zero principles by requiring crash test-based performance standards for truck side and rear underride guards.
Due to the circumstances of our crash, we have a particular interest in promoting the improvement of underride protection on trucks so that–upon the collision of a smaller vehicle with a truck–the geometrical mismatch of the two does not lead to the smaller vehicle riding under the truck so that the truck itself intrudes into the passengers’ survivable space. In simple terms, our goal is to bring an end to what should be survivable crashes but which all-too-often lead to horrific injuries and tragic death.
It is our observation and conclusion, based upon investigation into the facts that, whether DOT is actually hampered by a previous Executive Order (12866) or merely assumed to be so, NHTSA generally issues rules that are less stringent than what existing technology has shown to be possible (read that: weak and ineffective).
It was for that reason that we have petitioned for a Vision Zero Executive Order and specifically discussed with DOT policy officials, on March 4, 2016, the preferable means of analyzing the pros and cons of a proposed rule through Cost Effectiveness Analysis (CEA) vs the more-commonly used Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA)–which assigns an economic value to human life.
For a better understanding of this regulatory analysis process, see the enlightening Public Comment on the NPRM for Rear Underride Guards on Trailers by Jerry Karth.
It is our hope that the White House, along with DOT, will seriously consider our petition (Letter to President Obama from the Karth Family & thousands of petition signers) with all of its accompanying documentation of the need for change and act accordingly.
At least it appeared to me that DOT intends to keep their promise to deliver the Petition Books for us. At the end of our meeting, they asked me to sign each book with a personal message to the recipient. I gladly did so, asking them to consider our petition for the sake of AnnaLeah and Mary.
Speaking of AnnaLeah and Mary. . . this gets me back to my earlier reference to our particular crash, which was, of course, due to the failure (for whatever reason) of a truck driver to maintain lane and hitting our car so that it went backwards under another truck. Because the underride guard failed to do its intended job, Mary and AnnaLeah experienced an untimely and unnatural end to their lives.
My question is: Should someone be held accountable for the failure of that federally-required piece of equipment which resulted in two deaths? Is the manufacturer liable to prevent someone from being killed when they collide with a truck? And, mind you, expecting them to do so would not be some pie-in-the-sky kind of expectation. It has been proven that protection is possible from much worse circumstances than are currently required.
Yet, the Judicial third branch of the government has provided little hope for ensuring that the truck/trailer manufacturer will be held responsible for the failure of their product, upon collision with it, to prevent horrible, unnecessary death. I have been reminded of that unfortunate reality again this week as the topic came up again related to our crash.
In fact, upon a simple search of the internet, I found this example of the difficulty of pinning liability upon the manufacturer:
Defendant . . . avers that despite the truth of these facts, it owed no duty to persons such as plaintiff’s decedent who crash into the rear of its trailers. . . . maintains that there is no duty to design, manufacture and sell a trailer which is “accident-proof” that is, able to protect “invaders” or “trespassers” who run into the trailer and later seek legal redress U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama – 816 F. Supp. 1525 (M.D. Ala. 1993) March 26, 1993.
What?! So there you have it. At least some manufacturers are willing to fight for their right to avoid ethical responsibility for designing their product to be safe to travel around.
Few have been able to bring about a successful judgment against manufacturers, although some have tried: See Beattie v. Lindelof, 633 N.E.2d 1227 (Ill. App. Ct. 1994); Mieher v. Brown, 301 N.E.2d 307 (Ill. 1973), but cf. Harris v. Great Dane Trailers, Inc., 234 F.3d 398 (8th Cir. 2000) (Arkansas law); Buzzard v. Roadrunner Trucking, Inc., 966 F.2d 777 (3d Cir. 1992) (Pennsylvania law); Rivers v. Great Dane Trailers, Inc., 816 F. Supp. 1525 (M.D. Ala. 1993); Worldwide Equipment, Inc., v. Mullins, 11 S.W.3d 50 (Ky. Ct. App. 1999); Detillier v. Sullivan, 714 So.2d 244 (La. Ct. App. 1998); Quay v. Crawford, 788 So.2d 76 (Miss. Ct. App. 2001); Garcia v. Rivera, 553 N.Y.S.2d 378 (N.Y. App. Div. 1990); Hagan v. Gemstate Mfg., Inc., 982 P.2d 1108 (Or. 1999); Great Dane Trailers, Inc. v. Wells, 52 S.W.3d 77 (Tex. 2001).
In one case, a court reasoned that:
the manufacturer is obliged to secure the occupants of only its vehicle from that foreseeable harm: the manufacturer does not owe a duty to protect those who collide with its vehicle. See Mieher, 301 N.E.2d at 308-10; but see id. at 310-11 (Goldenhersh, J. dissenting) (arguing that the duty of care should extend to prevent unreasonable risk to occupants, other drivers, and pedestrians).
In my mind, the question remains: Does the manufacturer owe travelers on the road the duty to exercise reasonable care in designing its motor vehicle?
One author takes a look at this question:
Does a vehicle manufacturer owe a duty to design a vehicle with which it is safe to collide? The Illinois Supreme Court said no in the case of an underride accident, where one vehicle rear-ended a truck and proceeded unimpeded under its bed. The decision unleashed an ongoing debate over the concept of “enhanced injury,” where a manufacturer can be liable for defects in its vehicle that cause injuries over and above those that would have occurred from the accident but for a defective design. Illinois vehicle manufacturers have no duty to protect non-occupants who collide with their vehicles
As it stands, it appears to me that, in general, the manufacturing community is prone to protect themselves from legal impunity rather than protect travelers on the road. I would welcome the opportunity to hear differently.
So, how then do we bring about a more responsible solution to this solvable underride problem? In addition to considering how we might impact each of the three branches of our government, we have also sought for, and encouraged, voluntary action on the part of truck/trailer manufacturers–which has met with some limited success. For the most part, the manufacturers tend to take a wait-and-see attitude–particularly when NHTSA is in the midst of rulemaking–rather than take the initiative to simply go ahead and design the best possible protection.
We have worked with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Truck Safety Coalition (TSC) to bring all interested parties together in an Underride Roundtable this Spring when, on May 5, 2016, we will attempt to cooperatively address this problem–for the sake of all travelers–in memory of those who have already lost their lives needlessly and for those of us who are vulnerable to being the next potential victim of a “roving guillotine.”
In fact, when we were in Washington this week, we met at IIHS with some of the members of the planning group for the Underride Roundtable (Russ Rader, IIHS; John Lannen, TSC, Andy Young, truck litigation attorney/truck driver/truck company owner; Jerry, Isaac, and myself)–taking the opportunity to get some work done in person. One of the ideas, which we were throwing around when brainstorming about how to shape our Panel Discussion, was the need for creating Best Practices for Underride Protection and re-visiting the issue on an ongoing basis.
Byron Bloch had joined us for the meeting. One suggestion he made, during our Roundtable planning meeting, was that IIHS, who is well-known for that crash rating safety program for the automotive industry, develop a 5-Star Crash Rating Program for truck/trailer manufacturers as well.
That idea has grabbed our attention. After all, the IIHS crash testing of various major trailer manufacturers prior to our crash and continuing in the years following, was a source of revelation to us about the extent of the underride problem and the reality that it was/is a solvable problem.
Furthermore, as I continue to observe the crash testing of passenger vehicles, no matter how safe those vehicles are manufactured, their crashworthiness features are compromised and prevented from going into action when the vehicle collides with a larger vehicle and rides under it. In other words, auto safety improvements are compromised due to a truck safety flaw.
How about a cycle be set up–Jerry suggested this morning–for crash testing of trucks/trailers to assess the success of advances in underride protection? This would provide a means of reliable, comparative, and ongoing feedback to the manufacturers, as well as the buyers of trailers and single unit trucks, government officials, researcher engineers, safety advocates, attorneys, crash reconstructionists, injury prevention specialists, and travelers on the road.
I ask the question again: How will we address this problem of Death by Underride?
Due to the complexity of the issue, no one is currently held accountable, responsible, or liable for preventing these deaths which occur upon collision of a passenger vehicle with a larger commercial motor vehicle. Remember, we are not talking here about who was to blame for the collision occurring in the first place.
Can we possibly find our way to work together in our great nation through the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of our government–in a cooperative, concerted effort with private industry, research engineers, safety advocates, and the insurance industry– to bring about the best possible protection for We the People?
Can we agree to share the costs of what the solution will require so that the burden of the problem is shifted from the victims, who experience life needlessly cut short or devastatingly changed by horrific injuries, and their families who are faced with unexpected, traumatic, too-often-bitter, and unending grief?
Right this minute, I must admit, I am discouraged right along with the many others who have tried to bring about change for decades. Nonetheless, I choose to remain hopeful that this is not insurmountable and that we are well on our way to victory as we continue to shed light on traffic safety problems and call for truth, justice, and mercy to prevail.
(Note: All viewpoints expressed above are mine alone and are not meant to imply agreement by any individuals who may have been mentioned. Whether the analysis of the issues at hand are accurate–or unfairly tainted by the emotions of this grieving mother–are left to the reader to ferret out. Marianne Karth, March 6, 2016)