Witnessed safety defect in action at underride crash tests; this is what snuffed out my daughters’ lives.

We have been following the progress of Aaron Kiefer’s development of an innovative side/rear underride guard, which he has designed on his own time when not working as a crash reconstructionist or spending time with his family. So we eagerly welcomed his invitation to help out in his MacGyver-style crash test this past Saturday. (By the way, I am a big fan of MacGyver–watched every episode on DVD with Mary & AnnaLeah.)

Aaron wanted to take this opportunity to test his design and find out what changes might be needed to make it a marketable and affordable option for trailer owners to install as a retrofit safety improvement. We joined a crew of his family, friends, and fellow crash reconstructionists at a junkyard in the Triangle area.

The morning was for set-up. Then we took a break for some brats and chips before devoting the afternoon to three crash tests. I had been unsure before arriving as to how a pick-up could tow a car and make it crash into a trailer. It became clear to me when I saw Aaron’s pulley contraption.

Crash Test Tow Set-Up

Test 1 was a side crash. The collision of the car into the side guard caused the innovative side guard to pop off its brace. But, as Aaron and Jerry said, the test was successful because the side guard stopped the car from going under the trailer beyond the windshield; it prevented Passenger Compartment Intrusion (PCI). People in the car could have walked away alive.

Test 2 was a second side guard crash with the same car. Again, the car did not go under past the windshield and there was no PCI. The guard would have protected the people in the car from death and/or severe injuries. This time the added aluminum brace at the rear sheared off. Aaron thinks that he will have to go back to the drawing board and make a stronger brace.

Test 3 was a rear crash test. This time the side guard got rolled up and set aside. The trailer was turned around and the test car set up to aim at the rear of the trailer. The original rear underride guard on the trailer had actually been damaged at some point in the past and only had four of its original eight bolts. (That was the condition the underride guard was in when Aaron purchased the trailer, which had sustained damage from collision with an overpass. The guard had clearly not been properly maintained.)

In this crash, the underride guard failed and the car rode under the trailer. There was PCI and, if there had been people in the car, they would not have escaped unharmed. The added brace on the outer edge did not hold up. In fact, it was still fastened on (come to think of it, as it took a lot of work to unfasten it from the trailer afterward), but the original underride guard popped entirely off and flew to the side — doing nothing to stop the car from going under the truck.

Aaron had actually aimed the car to hit the left outer edge of the trailer, which he had reinforced with some aluminum braces. (Note: The current federal standard, as well as the proposed improved rule, does not require this area of the trailer to be protected against underride.) Instead, the car hit the vertical bar of the guard; the entire original guard then popped off and the car went under the truck.

It’s back to the drawing board for Aaron to find a way to improve his design. It was definitely a great success in that it prevented deadly side underride. On top of that, the trailer was not damaged by the collision (except for a few little nicks). But the bracing needs to be made stronger.

From what I could see, the day’s events only served to strengthen Aaron’s resolve to put a stop to senseless deaths, which he sees all-too-often in his work. I for one am truly thankful for the wonderful work he is doing, along with the group of people who willingly set aside a Saturday to support his effort.

Photo Album of the Day’s Events

The day gave me a deeper appreciation for all who take the time to solve the problem of preventable traffic fatalities. This includes the Virginia Tech Senior Design Team and Wabash and Manac and many researchers for decades, such as George Rechnitzer and Raphael Grzebieta in Australia and Luís Otto Faber Schmutzler in Brazil, and countless other un-named individuals.

It was also personally very intense. As one participant commented, “That was violent!”

Indeed, it was very violent. All three crashes gave me a jolt. But after the third crash, which resulted in deadly underride, I found myself standing still in the aftermath. Others were busy finding tasks to measure the results and get the clean-up started–including getting the car unstuck from under the trailer. But all I could do was stand there and stare.

Not until the next day really did it all begin to sink in: how I had witnessed from observing from afar what I and my children had gone through ourselves (although with a different crash scenario). I had watched, as an onlooker, the instantaneous destruction of a vehicle and how it was that AnnaLeah’s life had been inconceivably snuffed out in the twinkling of an eye and how, in a matter of mere seconds, Mary’s body had been broken beyond repair by just such a tragically-unresolved traffic safety problem.

It seemed like my own body experienced whiplash as it tensed up and relived, through traumatic muscle memory, what I had gone through. Meanwhile my heart continues to break with the grief that knows no end even as I process this experience.

It is beyond my comprehension how we, in this country, can allow such things to occur year after year without moving heaven and earth to learn how to prevent these tragedies. I can only ask forgiveness, and apologize to the countless families who have lost loved ones through violent death by motor vehicle, for letting them down–for not addressing it as the priority it should be. As a society, we have dropped the ball.

This is why I continue to push for President Obama to set a Vision Zero National Goal and strategies to reach that goal–including Vision Zero Community Action Groups. This is why I am looking forward to the Underride Roundtable on May 5, 2016, and why we continue to ask for donations to AnnaLeah & Mary for Truck Safety to support underride research and the effort to improve underride protection on trucks and trailers.

Jerry said several times, “It’s not every day you get to see a dream become a reality–kind of a humbling experience actually.” May there be many more such days.

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Third Crash Test: Side Guard Crash Test #3: Successful Prevention of Truck Underride Once Again!

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