It is no secret that a crash between a tractor trailer and a passenger car can have disastrous consequences. The term “truck crash” generally conjures up images and fears of big rigs slamming into other vehicles, severely injuring or killing the driver or passengers of the smaller car. Indeed, many rules and regulations relating to the operation of big commercial trucks aim to avoid or eliminate accidents where the truck is the striking vehicle. It is easy to imagine the devastation that can result when such accidents happen.
What many drivers don’t realize or fully understand, however, is the unique danger posed by crashes where the smaller car runs into the back or side of the truck’s trailer. When a car strikes a truck, the front of the car can slide under the body of the trailer because of the gap between the road and the bottom of the trailer. These accidents are known as “underride” crashes.
A truck trailer sits at roughly the same height off the ground as the head and upper body of the driver and front seat passenger of the car. When a car underrides a truck trailer, the occupants of the car often suffer catastrophic or fatal injuries to their head, neck, and torso. In fact, underride crashes account for about 1 out of every 4 deaths in fatality collisions involving one truck and one car.
While everyday drivers may be unfamiliar with the unique dangers posed by underride crashes, the hazard has been a well-known problem in the trucking and transportation industries for years. Virtually all truck trailers on the road these days have some form of underride protection on the back, typically bars attached to the bottom edge of the trailer designed to limit how easily a car can slide under the rear of the trailer.
Last month, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) passed a safety measure that increases the strength of these devices. The new rule requires that underride protection devices be strong enough to protect the occupants of a car that hits the rear of the trailer at speeds up to 35 MPH. Astoundingly, NHTSA finalized its rule change a whopping 6½ years after the rule was initially proposed. Without question, the wheels of government bureaucracy turn slowly.
Vehicle and consumer safety groups, such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, have criticized NHTSA for taking so long to finalize the rule, and because they believe the rule does not go far enough to protect occupants of smaller vehicles. Another organization, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, also spoke out against the new standard, calling in “completely inadequate” and noting that the new NHTSA rule is less protective than the standards a handful of trucking companies have already voluntarily adopted. This means that other, less safety-conscious truck companies can choose to install less expensive and less effective rear underride devices on their trucks and still technically meet the legal standard that NHTSA has set.
Another problem with the new NHTSA rule is that it only sets a standard for rear underride protection, with no rules in places to guard against side underride injuries and deaths. The agency announced that it will be forming a federal advisory committee to study the side underride problem and plans to propose a new side underride protection standard in the near future. Given the snail’s pace at which a proposed rule becomes an enforceable legal standard, chances are it will be many years before the government requires side underride devices on truck trailers operating on U.S. highways.