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Are Current Truck Underride Standards Insufficient to Protect the Lives of Motorists?

In the first part of this series, we discussed the evolution of underride protection standards. As discussed previously, underride protections standards were first promulgated in 1953. The 1967 death of celebrity Jayne Mansfield due to her vehicle striking a commercial truck from behind and under-riding, created a public outcry for tougher standards and a US DoT recommendation for criteria that would provide broader vehicle coverage and heightened testing requirements. But, federal regulators abandoned the rulemaking process in 1971. No changes were made to the law for decades. When changes to the standard were finally published in 1998, the trucking fleet had already significantly changed from the one the rules were written to address.  Today, many of the problems regarding underride protection that have lingered since the 1970s and earlier are still present.

Trucking Accident - Are Current Truck Underride Standards Insufficient to Protect the Lives of Motorists?

IIHS President Described Federal Underride Standards as a “Sham” in 1977 Congressional Hearings

Although it would be more than 20 years until the law would change, a 1977 report by IIHS serves as one of the early warning signs that the 1953 underride protection law was not working as intended. In a series of test described in its March 29, 1977 volume of Highway Loss Reduction Status Report, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that devices used at the time were simply inadequate to prevent many underride scenarios. For instance, the tests designed and administered by the IIHS showed that a collision involving a BMCS-compliant (Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety, the forerunner to FMCSA) underride guard involving even an extremely light vehicle for the time at only 30 miles per an hour would result in catastrophic damage to the vehicle’s passenger compartment.

At a Senate Investigative hearing then-president of the organization, William Haddon Jr., M.D., presented evidence to make three main points:

  1. The standard as it existed is a “sham.”
  2. Even a moderate speed impact with a BMCS-compliant rear under-ride guard would result in under-ride. The passenger vehicle would typically sustain catastrophic damage to its passenger compartment and the crash dummies would be “battered.”
  3. Effective underride protection devices have been available for years.

Haddon warned Senators, “Blood has been shed, heads literally have rolled and countless thousands of Americans have been injured because these agencies did not act. Further inaction would be inexcusable.” This, in part, resulted in federal officials drafting a underride standard that would reduce road clearance from 30 to 24 inches, not require retrofitting for vehicles already manufactured and on the roadways, and a structural strength requirement. However, and despite Haddon’s warning, these standards were not immediately passed into law. But if these provision sound familiar, it is because they are. These changes, largely, represent those that would be passed into law more than 20 years later as FMVSS 423 and 424. However even these standards failed to address a number of safety problems and failed to account for the changing nature of the American truck and vehicle fleet.

Accident Scene - Are Current Truck Underride Standards Insufficient to Protect the Lives of Motorists?

The 1998 Standards are not Providing Adequate Protections for Motorists

Despite the passage of the 1998 amendments, these rules were not evaluated – except for two controlled crash tests – for more than a decade. In short, there was no real-world data to back-up the efficacy of these standards which were largely drafted in the 1970s. The study analyzed both the performance of federally-complaint rear underride guards and the performance of vehicles exempted from the under-ride guard requirement. Once culled, the data set represented 115 underride accidents. Conclusions from the study included:

  • In all, nearly 50 percent of the vehicles sustained severe or catastrophic underride damage to the passenger compartment.
  • Vehicles that sustained severe to catastrophic damage to the passenger compartment, accounted for 23 of the 28 deaths that occurred.
  • For trailers with a compliant under-ride guard the most common reasons for failure were insufficient bolting or welding, buckling of the trailer chassis, and the deformation of the lateral end of the guard.
  • Most trucks studied qualified for at least one exemption under the FMVSS standards. Dump trucks, a type of straight-truck, represented one of the most dangerous exempted vehicle types.

This study also noted a number of problems with the standards themselves. For instance, the standard permits excessive amounts of ground clearance for trucks and the controlled testing conditions obscured problems with narrow overlap over-ride situations. Finally the current practice of certifying underride protection guards while in a detached state also obscures problems regarding proper guard installation and securement. In short, while the overly stiff “decapitation bar” receives a lot of attention, due to the grisly injuries it can produce, this 2011 study shows that a underride guard of insufficient strength or no under-ride guard at all due to an exemption are likely larger problems. For its part, the IIHS agrees that guards too weak to adequately absorb under-ride impact are a larger problem than guards that do not flex as they absorb energy.

Injured in an Underride Accident? Rely on The Reiff Law Firm

If you have suffered a serious injury or if a loved one has been killed due to a rear-end collision with a commercial truck, the Philadelphia truck accident lawyers at The Reiff Law Firm may be able to fight for you. Our car accident attorneys are here to help. For more than three decades, their legal guidance has been trusted by Pennsylvanians and Philadelphians. Call (215) 709-6940 today for a free and confidential consultation.


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