Driver safety advocates greeted a late-2015 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the use and design of underride guards on commercial trucks with mixed emotions. While all agreed that updating standards for which vehicles must carry the steel bars that prevent cars from sliding under trailers during crashes, critics highlighted the fact that fully implementing the draft rules would affect too few semis and leave people vulnerable in collisions that did not occur square on with the back of a heavy truck.
U.S. federal underride guard standards were last revised in 1997. Canada imposed tougher standards for the strength, impact-absorbing properties, width and depth of underride guards in 2007. Most American heavy trucks now comply with the Canadian standard. This prompted the executive director of the independent Truck Safety Coalition to tell one publication, “Sadly, their [NHTSA’s] proposal is to replace a 20-year-old standard with a 10-year-old standard. What they’re doing is essentially just copying the Canadian standard.”
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has also questioned the positive effects from making small changes to the design of underride guards. IIHS called in 2011 for a complete redesign of the steel tractor attachments. It followed that formal petition in 2013 with a request to require underride guards as standard equipment on all single-unit commercial trucks.
NHTSA’s 2015 rulemaking notice incorporates the later demand. According to the agency, equipping large box trucks and construction vehicles with underride guards would prevent up to 80 percent of the deaths that result from sliding under trucks in rear-end collisions. Another 20 percent of head injuries and traumatic brain injuries suffered in such crashes could also be avoided.
A second part of the newly proposed rule, and the section most criticized by safety advocates, would increase the “conspicuity” of underride guards by adding more lights and attaching brighter reflectors. What is most needed, say IIHS researchers, is stronger and more shock-absorbing corners on the guards.
Other groups have also asked NHTSA to consider safety skirting for commercial trucks and tractor-trailers. They point, most recently, to the infamous “Tesla autopilot” death in which an electric car driver took his hands off the wheel before drifting under the side of a semi. A barrier that surrounds the underside of a trailer might have saved the Tesla driver.
It is unclear when or if new standards for underride guards on U.S. heavy trucks and tractor-trailers will take effect. As a Virginia personal injury and wrongful death attorney who has helped many victims of rear-end collisions involving trucks, I recognize the need for greater protections. While what NTHSA demands may not go far enough, each step toward greater safety for drivers of small vehicles who share the road with commercial trucks is welcome. In the absence of more-inclusive federal rules, perhaps truck and tractor manufacturers, as well as trucking and freight companies, could make voluntary upgrades.