Proper Maintenance of Underride Guards Can Spell the Difference Between L-i-f-e & D-e-a-t-h

Last night I reviewed proposed language for the Maintenance Section of the Stop Underrides legislation [aka the Roya, AnnaLeah & Mary Comprehensive Underride Protection Act of 2017]. Working to accurately spell out what was important to include in requirements for proper maintenance of rear underride guards made me realize how imperative it is that the basic problem of underride be better understood.

A true appreciation of the fundamental underride issue could, in fact, lead to a better grasp of what is at stake if an underride guard is not properly maintained. So that is what I hope to foster here. Because this is not a simple matter of keeping a machine functioning so it can continue to drive down the road; it is a matter of maintaining the integrity of a piece of equipment which can, hopefully, prevent sure death or debilitating injury.

The basic underride problem is that trucks were, and are, designed so that the height of the bottom of the truck is higher than the part of the car which should ideally make first impact with the truck in the event of a collision. Instead, what happens is that the first point of impact with the truck is the windshield and then your head.

Maybe if trucks were all designed to ride lower to the ground — like most moving company trucks — we wouldn’t be in this situation. But they aren’t. So when people started dying because of this problem, engineers realized that something should be done. Instead of lowering the bottom of the truck, they decided to attach something, an underride guard, to the truck to fill in that gap –like this 1913 patent for a safety device for the sides of motor vehicles, referred to by one writer as a life-guard:

The only thing is, that will only work if the guard can be designed to be strong enough to withstand the force of a vehicle colliding with it. If the guard is not strong enough, then it will give way — bend or come off the truck — and allow the passenger vehicle to go under the truck. In fact, that’s what the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety demonstrated in their in-depth research over the last decade: the rear underride guards designed according to the specifications of the current federal standard are not strong enough to withstand the force of a collision along the entire back of the trailer.

Fortunately, progress has been made to design stronger rear underride guards which have been tested to withstand a collision at 35 mph along the entire back of the trailer. But I will not rest until these improved guards have been tested successfully at higher speeds to determine if the new designs provide the best humanly possible protection, or whether we need to go back to the drawing board.

So where does maintenance come into the picture? If you have a piece of equipment which is supposed to guard against deadly underride  — if designed in a particular way (and that includes how it is attached to body of the truck), then it would need to be maintained in such a way that it would continue to provide that same strength.

Herein lies the problem. The current rear underride guards on existing trucks might do what they are supposed to in some collisions and successfully prevent underride. However, if the guards (and their attachments to the trucks) are not properly maintained in like-new condition, then their integrity will be compromised and their strength will be weakened. Underride will be even more likely to occur, and people will die as a result.

And this is the reality for the millions of existing large trucks on the road today. As far as I can see, from simple observation when driving on the highways, many of the rear underride guards are not being properly maintained. Of course, this will be important for the newer, stronger guards, too, as they begin to be installed on new trucks or retrofitted to existing trucks.

But how does one determine if a guard is in disrepair? This has been spelled out by the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations in their Recommended Practice (RP) 732, VMRS 077, Trailer Rear Impact Guard Repair Guidelines:

Rear impact guards should be regularly inspected for cracked welds, cracked or fractured vertical members. Cuts and tears in any member for dimensional integrity. This includes:
  • cracked welds
  • cracked or fractured vertical members, including any additional bracing added by the manufactuer such as diagonal struts running from the center of the horizontal member to the vertical supports
  • cracked or loose fasteners joining the RIG members together
  • cracked or loose fasteners attaching the RIG to the trailer sill]
  • bends in any member
  • corrosion/rust in any RIG member and the trailer sill
  • cuts, punctures, and tears in any member
  • proper attachment to the trailer sill
  • rear cross members
  • rear trailer sill and at least the last six feet of the floor
  • and for dimensional and overall structural integrity.

Those sound like useful criteria for making sure that underride guards are in good shape. Yet, who even knows about those repair guidelines or is trained to evaluate the condition of underride prevention equipment?

In fact, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) already has a stipulation on the books that these guards need to be maintained in like-new condition. But this requirement is, unfortunately, not included in the Vehicle Inspection Checklist provided to truck drivers and vehicle inspectors nor is it included in Appendix G, the Minimum Periodic Inspection Standards, found in the FMCSA Safety Regulations.

As far as I know, a guard which is in “disrepair” is not considered a violation worthy of putting a truck “out-of-service.” So the end result is that trucks which are an underride tragedy waiting to happen continue to drive on the road — day after day, year after year.

My copy of the FMCSA Safety Regulations Pocketbook says,

FMCSA’s and CVSA’a (Commercial  Vehicle Safety Alliance) out-of-service criteria are intended to be used in random roadside inspections to identify critical vehicle inspection items and provide criteria for placing a vehicle(s) out-of–service.

A vehicle(s) is placed out-of-service only when by reason of its mechanical condition or loading it is determined to be so imminently hazardous as to likely cause an accident or breakdown, or when such condition(s) would likely contribute to loss of control of the vehicle(s) by the driver.

A certain amount of flexibility is given to the inspecting official whether to place the vehicle out-of-service at the inspection site or if it would be less hazardous to allow the vehicle to proceed to a repair facility for repair. The distance to the repair facility must not exceed 25 miles. The roadside type of inspection, however, does not necessarily mean that a vehicle has to be defect-free in order to continue in service.

In contrast, the Appendix G inspection procedure requires that all items required to be inspected are in proper adjustment, are not defective and function properly prior to the vehicle being placed in service. pp. 544-545

First of all, underride protective devices need to be added to the Vehicle Inspection Checklist. Secondly, the Safety Regulations need to be changed to reflect the seriousness of this problem. I would recommend that it read like this:

A vehicle(s) is placed out-of-service only when by reason of its mechanical condition or loading it is determined to be so imminently hazardous as to likely cause an accident or breakdown, or to allow death and/or injuries from truck underride (passenger compartment intrusion) upon collision, or when such condition(s) would likely contribute to loss of control of the vehicle(s) by the driver.

Truck drivers should be checking their underride protective devices in their daily pre-trip inspection. And they should be issued an out-of-service violation — requiring them to take the truck off the road — until the underride protection has been properly repaired. But, for that to actually take place, there will need to be appropriate training carried out for both trucking companies and inspection officials. Ongoing enforcement will be essential.

Until we put some teeth into this safety regulation, we will be responsible for continuing to allow people to die from Death by Underride — when some careful attention to proper maintenance might have spared their families such terrible grief.

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