Recently, the NHTSA issued guidelines for vehicle manufacturers delving into the development of autonomous, self-driving vehicles. While it was necessary for federal regulator to get out in front of this issue, it does make one wonder why the agency hasn’t taken more forceful action on something we know would have an immediate impact in saving lives and reducing serious injuries: Underride guards.
While fully autonomous vehicles are likely years away from mass production, commercial vehicles are on every highway in this country – and mileage of these vehicles is expected to increase by 30 percent in the next 15 years. A very serious danger for those who encounter these large vehicles is the risk of smaller vehicles (or bicyclists) sliding underneath in the event of a collision.
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards Nos. 223 and 224 require underride guards on tractor-trailers weighing 10,000 pounds or more manufactured after 1998. However, there have long been criticisms that these standards don’t go far enough. In fact, when a passenger vehicle runs into the back of a tractor-trailer with a weaker underride guard, the outcome is far too often fatal.
Canadians have tougher regulations for underride guards, and U.S. authorities are considering the same.
According to an analysis of statistics from the NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), truck underride crashes resulted in nearly 230 deaths in 2014, the latest year for which the agency has information. More than 2,200 people were killed in these types of collisions in the decade prior to 2014. It’s worth noting, however, that this is likely a small fraction of the actual number of underride guard deaths because there are significant lapses in federal data.
In many of these truck accident cases, the commercial trucks involved were equipped with underride guards and these guards were up to current federal standards. Nonetheless, they were not strong enough to keep other motorists safe.
One example detailed in a recent Trucks.com article was that of teenage sisters, just 17 and 13, when they were killed in a truck accident when a rear underridge guard couldn’t withstand the truck crash impact. It came off, meaning there was nothing stopping the smaller vehicle from sliding underneath the big rig. The older girl was killed instantly. Her sister died months later from horrific injuries.
Reports by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) – one in 2011 and another in 2013 – tested underride guards made by eight trailer manufacturers. What they discovered in 2011 was that zero of these were able to stop underride on the outside edges of the truck, despite the fact that they adhered to the current standards. Flash-forward two years, and only one company’s underride guard protected those in the smaller cars.
It’s an issue that U.S. safety regulators have debated for decades, going back to 1969. Had the NHTSA chosen to mandate underride guards and side guards on commercial trucks back then, thousands of lives might have been spared.
The NHTSA rulemaking process started in the summer of 2014. An official proposed rule was submitted last December, but it was ultimately deemed to weak and effective. Another round table of stakeholders was held in May and improved underride guards were tested. Under the new standards, four of the eight underride guards were able to offer better protection to passenger vehicle occupants. Following this, stakeholders submitted a stronger rule to the NHTSaA, which is now being considered. But that would still mean half of the underride guards don’t offer adequate protection.
As far as side guards, the NHTSA has yet to act on a proposed rule that would mandate this feature.
So while we debate about the mechanics of a self-driving car that could be decades away, the true focus really should be on the problem that has plagued us for that long already.
Contact our experienced San Antonio truck accident lawyers at (210) 308-8811.
When Will We Tackle Underride? – The Hidden Dangers in Trucks, Aug. 10, 2016, Opinion, Marianne Karth, Trucks.com
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Fatal Truck Accident Trial for Distracted Trucker Slated for 2017, Oct. 23, 2016, San Antonio Truck Accident Lawyer Blog