On the Road to Fewer Underride Fatalities

Lois Durso of Stop Underrides on making side underride accidents less dangerous.

Angel Wing Side Underride Guard
Aftermarket side underride guards—like the AngelWing side underride guard shown here—can make truck underride accidents more survivable. Photo courtesy of Perry Ponder.

On June 29, 1967, actress Jayne Mansfield and two other adults died in a rear underride accident after their Buick went under the back of a tractor-trailer near New Orleans, Louisiana. (Three of Mansfield’s children, including three-year-old Mariska Hargitay—who now plays detective Olivia Benson on the television series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit—survived the wreck.)

In the wake of that tragic crash, there was movement towards strengthening federal requirements for underride protection, both in terms of rear and side underride guards.

“In 1969, it was anticipated that [the government] was going to require side underride protection but nothing was ever done. If you start calculating all the fatalities that have occurred in the last fifty years the numbers have been huge,” says Lois Durso of Stop Underrides, who is working—alongside fellow safety advocate Marianne Karth—to educate the public about the dangers of truck underride accidents.

Raising awareness about the issue is critical, says Durso, who says she didn’t recognize that underride could happen before her 26-year-old daughter Roya Sadigh was killed when her car went under the side of a truck in Indiana on November 24, 2004.

“Until they see video or it’s explained, most people don’t really know what underride is. They certainly don’t know that so many people are dying every year, and that it’s a decades-old problem,” she continues.

In the following interview, Durso addresses side underride in particular, as well as the proposed Stop Underrides Act, not to mention a few of the engineering solutions that have been developed to protect motorists and vulnerable road users (pedestrians, motorcyclists and bicyclists) from side underride.

Why don’t tractor-trailers have side underride guards?

I have talked to truck drivers and people in the industry and they are aware that people have been dying under the trailers but they haven’t had any incentive to do anything about it; [underride guards] haven’t been mandated and so there’s some apathy in terms of underride fatalities.

But when you think about what a truck trailer looks like, it’s almost four feet from the pavement to the bottom of the trailer, and cars go under on a regular basis. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has done underride crash tests, and it’s pretty clear once you see the crash test videos [without underride guards]—why people don’t survive underride crashes. Unless there is some kind of underride guard to engage with, people will continue to go under.

And in terms of regulations, trailer manufacturers aren’t required to put side underride guards on their trucks, and the rear guards aren’t strong enough. So if underride victims [hire a truck accident law firm or truck accident attorney] and try to take the trucking companies and trailer manufacturers to court the companies basically say, ‘We are following the federal guidelines.’

I think a lot of politicians don’t know about or understand the issue of truck underride. Marianne Karth and I have been working together since February 2017, and for the first year we spent a lot of time in Washington D.C. educating lawmakers.

How did the Stop Underrides Act come together?

Marianne and I went to a Senate hearing on truck safety in March 2017. Nothing was said about side underride; they didn’t even discuss it. Both of us were upset and frustrated. We left the hearing and decided to start drafting legislation ourselves and that’s how it started.

In July, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office reached out to us after an underride crash in New York State where four people died because of a jackknifed tractor-trailer, and together we worked on fine tuning and perfecting the legislation. The Stop Underrides Act was introduced in December 2017 and now we are working on trying to get it passed.

Is there an effective engineering solution to the problem of side underride accidents?

Absolutely, we’ve already seen that with the AngelWing side guard [pictured above]. And some of the larger trailer manufacturers are working on side underride. One in particular I know, Wabash National, has unveiled a prototype [side underride guard with aero skirt] at the North American Commercial Vehicle Show in Atlanta.

Also, a lot of the manufacturers are putting guards with new technology on their new trailers. Some of them have the new guards as an option, which I think is horrible, because if they have the technology to save lives, I don’t know why they don’t just put them on.

Are underride accidents underreported, and if yes, why?

They are grossly underreported and the Department of Transportation will acknowledge that. In my daughter’s case the crash wasn’t reported [as a side underride accident]. A lot of police officers don’t even know what to call it, so when they are writing out the police report they are not accurately describing what happened. They are looking for different things—maybe the cause of the crash rather than the cause of death.

What can readers do to support your advocacy efforts?

Contact your congressmen and senators and let them know that you want underride guards on tractor-trailers and box trucks. We’ve started this grassroots movement but it would be helpful if others jump onboard.

We feel like we are getting some traction, because people are now beginning to talk about underride, rear and side, but particularly side. But we need a lot of media attention; we need more people to understand what truck underride is and I hope that will happen as we get more momentum. I think people innately feel the danger when they are passing a tractor-trailer but they don’t understand that underride can happen. I certainly didn’t and I know Marianne didn’t.