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Crash test intensifies call for side bumpers on tractor-trailers

Hundreds die annually in collisions with trucks
Posted: 6:11 AM, Oct 09, 2017
Updated: 2017-10-09 08:11:04-04

The Chevrolet Malibu raced toward the side of a tractor-trailer at 40 mph. Its hood crumpled like an accordion when it slammed into the truck, but the car did not slide under the trailer and the airbag cushioned the head of the occupant in the front seat, in this case a crash dummy.

This was a test of a side underride safety guard, a steel bumper system to protect against often fatal collisions between cars and trucks.

Lois Durso watched the crash test at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and she applauded when she saw the Malibu’s passenger compartment still intact.

"I just wish that the trailer manufacturers would've done it years ago," she said.

In 2004, Roya, Durso’s daughter, was killed in a wreck when she was riding in a car driven by her fiancé that rammed underneath a tractor-trailer on a snowy road.

Durso said the results reinforced her belief that side underride guards would save lives.

IIHS senior test coordinator Sean O’Malley reviewed the controlled collision and concluded,  “There’s a very low chance of injury with this crash.”

In a collision with a truck not outfitted with a side guard, the front of the car can slide completely beneath the trailer. Airbag sensors fail to detect any front impact, offering no protection for passengers as the edge of the truck trailer smashes into the front seats with tremendous force.

The safety devices are not required for trucks on U.S. roads, despite dozens of drivers and passengers dying each year in side underride crashes. The European Union, Brazil and Japan require side guards on trucks but only strong enough to protect pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

A Scripps News analysis of federal crash fatality data shows 300 people died after hitting the side of tractor-trailers in 2015, the most recent year data are available. The government does not record how many of those deaths involved side underride collisions in which the car went beneath the truck trailer, but IIHS estimates it's a factor in about half of the crashes, killing about 150 people each year.

Durso has been pressing the federal government to require guards on all tractor-trailers. She has visited Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and participated in news conferences to share her daughter’s story, but she is running into resistance from the trucking industry.

“Adding side guards is not just as simple as adding a side guard,” Jeff Sims, president of the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association, said at an IIHS forum.  "We need a million miles or whatever, running the thing up the road in various weather conditions and road conditions and off-road conditions to make it prove out."

The device tested at IIHS is a product called the AngelWing side guard, built by AirFlow Deflector. Its creators say the AngelWing has gone through extensive testing and has proven to work. It can be installed on new or older trailers at a cost of $3,995, including labor. IIHS says the AngelWing is the only side underride device intended to stop passenger cars that is commercially available. It has been on the market since October 2016.

“Attached to these large vehicles that dominate the road, this technology can save people’s lives and reduce injuries,” said AirFlow Deflector president and CEO Robert Martineau.

The guards can come with a skirt to make trucks more aerodynamic, but Sims said the extra 800 pounds of steel would reduce how much a trailer can legally carry before reaching its maximum weight limit.  That could require trucks to make more trips on the road, and additional miles would increase the risk for any fatal truck crash, Sims said.

"One of the most important considerations is added weight," he said.

Martineau said trucks should be able to get an exemption for the added pounds, but conceded the guards would slightly reduce fuel economy.

Other concerns include whether the guards could push cars into traffic in some cases and potentially gather a dangerous buildup of snow and ice in winter.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has required underride guards for the back of trucks since 1952. Regulators call them an important safety feature to prevent death and injury in the 11,000 or so rear-end crashes each year. There has never been a federal rule requiring side guards, though some cities require side guards for smaller municipal trucks.

In 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board said the government should require side underride protection systems on new trailers over 10,000 pounds and tractor-trailers over 26,000 pounds, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not acted on that recommendation. In a statement, NHTSA said it is researching side guards with the Texas Transportation Institute, with results expected at the end of the year.

“The agency is actively pursuing the improvement of underride protection,” the statement said.

NHTSA also said automatic emergency braking, set to become standard on cars beginning 2022, will help prevent cars from hitting trucks in the first place.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has called on transportation regulators to require the devices on the sides of trucks and to strengthen the standard for rear guards.

Durso and other family members of truck crash victims have been urging members of Congress to pass a law that would make side underride guards and stronger rear guards a requirement for trucks.  No senator or representative has agreed to introduce the bill.

"When you go through so much loss and grief you want to make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else," Durso said.