Preventing Truck Underride

Marianne Karth on how we can make underride accidents more survivable.

Rear Underride Crash Test Fail
Crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety demonstrate that underride guards on tractor-trailers can fail in relatively low-speed crashes, as it did in this crash test. Photo courtesy of the IIHS.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), almost 4,000 Americans died in big truck crashes in 2016.

More than two-third of the victims were occupants of cars or other passenger vehicles, many of whom died in side or rear underride accidents, which occur when a passenger vehicle goes under the side or rear of a truck, resulting in life-threatening intrusion of the truck body into the passenger compartment space. 

What most Americans don’t know is that truck underride fatalities may largely be preventable, thanks to side and rear underride guards that have been developed by independent engineers and trucking companies alike.

Yet the federal standards for rear underride guards remain inadequate and outdated, and side underride guards aren’t required at all, despite the fact that the dangers of truck underride first received national attention as far back as 1967, when actress Jayne Mansfield was killed in a tragic rear underride crash.   

This explains why safety advocates like Marianne & Jerry Karth (who lost two daughters in a rear underride accident in 2013) and Lois Durso (who lost a daughter in a side underride accident in 2004), are working together to raise awareness about the issue and pushing for the passage of federal legislation that would address the problem anew. 

“I have possibly witnessed more crash tests of cars into tractor-trailers than any non-engineer in the country,” begins Marianne Karth. “Based upon my understanding and observation of the proven and promising underride protective devices developed by engineers, I am totally confident that a mandate for this technology to be installed on all trucks is more than reasonable, not to mention long overdue, and will lead to the prevention of many injuries and saving of many lives. The government and industry have known for over 50 years that something has needed to be done to stop these kinds of tragedies.” 

In the following Failure Interview, Karth—who maintains an educational/memorial web site at annaleahmary.com—speaks about the accident that took the lives of her daughters and why she believes there has been little movement in regards to updating underride guard standards. She also discusses the bipartisan Stop Underrides Act, which she believes can be in a win-win for motorists and the trucking industry alike.   

This may be painful to talk about, but can you recount what happened on May 4, 2013? 

We had moved from Texas to North Carolina with our three youngest children and at Christmas break our college kids were home and our oldest daughter, Rebekah, had gotten engaged. So we all planned a trip to Texas in May for college graduations, and Rebekah was going to be getting married on May 11. I planned to make the drive in our Crown Victoria and Jerry, my husband, was to fly out for the rehearsal dinner. 

We got in the car and headed out on May 4. We came upon slow traffic on I-20 in Georgia near exit 130, so I slowed down. But a truck driver [behind us] did not slow down. We still don’t know if he was distracted or what, but he hit us and spun us around, and we went backwards into the tractor-trailer ahead of us. The truck’s rear underride guard came off and the back of our car went underneath the trailer. We all had to be taken out of the Crown Vic with the Jaws of Life. 

AnnaLeah and Mary were sitting in the back seat; AnnaLeah died at the scene, while I was taken to one hospital and Mary to another hospital two hours away. Mary was all by herself; she was a Jane Doe until her dad arrived the next day. I never got to see her again. It was a nightmare. 

Then we learned that hundreds of people die in underride accidents every year, and that the deaths could be prevented. It started us on a mission to make underride truck crashes more survivable.    

People may not be familiar with the term “underride accident.” What is an underride accident? 

The design of a truck is such that the bottom of the truck is higher than the bumper of a car. So there is nothing for the bumper of the car to collide with and the first point of contact, then, is the windshield. The car goes under the truck and the truck hits the windshield and then goes into the passenger occupant space. 

Rear underride guards have been mandated by the Department of Transportation (DOT)—the most current standard is from 1998—but it has been proven by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS)  that even though rear underguards on trucks are designed to meet that standard, they often fail when cars collide with them. 

Despite advances in technology, there hasn’t been a lot of movement in terms of updating underride guard standards. Why? 

One of the main reasons is that there is a lack of public understanding. Most people assume that when there is a truck-car crash, because the truck is bigger, of course there are going to be injuries and deaths to people in the smaller vehicle. They don’t realize that if there were something for the car to collide with [the outcome might be different], because what happens in an underride is that the safety features of the car—like the airbags—often don’t go into effect.

As a result of this lack of awareness there hasn’t been a demand for the problem to be solved, and I hate to say it but it’s kind of been like a skeleton in the closet for the trucking industry. They have been aware of it; we have seen plenty of documents that show that people continue to die. 

But they stand by [the fact that] they are meeting federal standards. For the most part there is no ability to [hire a truck accident law firm or truck accident attorney] to sue them for product liability because they meet the standards. And the government appears to have turned a blind eye to the fact that people keep dying this way.

Just to be clear, there is no federal standard for side guards—no requirement at all for the open sides of tractor-trailers. And single-unit trucks are not required to have underride guards at all. 

Back in 1969 the DOT issued a proposed rule for rear underride guards. This was in response to the death of actress Jayne Mansfield; she died when her car rear-ended a tractor-trailer. That proposed rule … it took 30 years before it got to the point where the 1998 standard was finally issued.

In that same document—the 1969 proposed rule for the rear guard—they said that they intended to add underride protection to the sides of large trucks. To this day, it has not happened. 

Tell me about the Stop Underrides Act. 

It can be described as a comprehensive underride protection bill. A few months after my family’s accident we got an opportunity to go with volunteers from the Truck Safety Coalition to meet with [then] Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. At that time, we requested an upgrade to the underride standards and he promised that we would see tangible progress in a short period of time.  

About six months later we checked and there was no tangible progress so we launched an online petition and over 11,000 people signed.

We put every one of those petitions in a separate envelope and sent 11,000 petitions to the DOT a year and a day after the crash and subsequently met with them. They told us they would make a decision on underride guards within two months, and they did that. Then in December of 2015 they issued a notice of proposal making to upgrade the rear underride guard, and said they would consider the side (and front) at a later date. That supposed rule for the rear is still in limbo, and it really wouldn’t do anything substantial to stop the kinds of crashes at the edges of the rearguard that the IIHS has shown the current guards don’t address.

All of that is to say that what we tried to do did not work; it made some progress but didn’t get the job done. 

So rather than some kind of piecemeal effort we put everything together into one bill, which calls for underride protection to be all around the truck, at the front of tractors, at the sides of trailers, and at the rear. It also includes not only tractor-trailers but single-unit trucks, because people die when they go under those trucks as well. 

And the Stop Underrides Act calls for retrofitting, because there are millions of trucks on the road, and if they are not retrofitted, people will continue to die from crashing into them. 

The bill also calls for enforcing maintenance requirements because rear underride guards are supposed to be kept in like-new condition, but there are many out on the road that are cracked, which makes them weaker than they already are. We call for the DOT to actually enforce that requirement. 

In a hearing in front of Congressional leaders, Jason Levine, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, said “There are a lot of studies that suggest [underride accidents] are severely undercounted.” Why might this be the case?

There are a number of reasons. One of them is that the problem is misunderstood and in general when there is a truck-car accident the crash investigation focuses primarily on the cause of the crash. Most crash report forms don’t even have a check box for whether there was underride or not, and even if it does, there has not been a lot of training of investigators as to how to identify whether underride was a factor in the cause of death.

The statistics that are available are from those reports, and so it’s believed that the numbers vastly undercount whether underride was a factor in truck crash fatalities.

In fact, Lois Durso and I have both looked at the FARS report, and both of our crashes are inaccurately reported.

Her daughter’s car went under the side of a trailer and the car got caught on a truck tire, which crushed her daughter. The term passenger compartment intrusion is not listed on the FARS report. 

And I looked back at our crash report. For AnnaLeah it says “fatal injury” as she died at the scene. For Mary it was stated as “non-fatal injury.” 

What are the greatest challenges that you and your fellow safety advocates are up against? 

A year ago in March, Durso and I attended a Senate Commerce committee meeting. The focus was an update on truck safety. We sat through it and were very frustrated when not one word was mentioned about the side underride problem, but we knew from everything we had been doing that there were sideguard solutions that had been developed.

In fact, we had helped to organize an Underride Roundtable in May 2016 because we saw that part of the problem was that people weren’t getting together to solve the problem. Industry and government—safety people and engineers—weren’t getting together. So we organized a roundtable. The result of that is that the engineer who designed the AngelWing side guard [Perry Ponder] got together with a manufacturer [AirFlow Deflector] who said they’d like to produce it for him. 

We were sick and tired of waiting for somebody else to do something and we said, “Let’s draft legislation ourselves.” So we started doing that and at that point we called it the Roya-AnnaLeah & Mary Comprehensive Underride Protection Act.

We started going around the Hill and finally in July 2017 after there was a side underride crash [on I-81 in Sandy Creek, New York], where four men died—two different cars went under the same truck—we contacted Senator Kirsten Gillibrand [D-NY]. A couple of weeks later her office contacted us and said they wanted to sponsor the bill and it proceeded from there. She introduced it after getting bipartisan support when Senator Marco Rubio [R-FL] joined. 

But even though it’s introduced there is a lot of resistance because the trucking industry is basically opposing it. However, we think this can be a win-win for the industry.

First, the side guards, in connection with a side skirt, could gain them fuel savings, which would provide a quick return on investment. Aaron Kiefer of Collision Safety Consulting is working on a design like that.

Also, if they have underride guards on their trucks then if there’s a crash they are more likely to get back on the road more quickly if there is not a fatality involved. If they are involved in a crash and there is no fatality because there is underride guard protection it’s not going to impact the driver’s career in the same way, if that makes any sense.

And many drivers, even if they are not the cause of the crash, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from having somebody die under their truck. Even if you don’t call it PTSD, it’s something they have to live with for the rest of their lives. 

Also, if there is effective underride protection on trucks there will be reduced insurance risk, so we’re hoping that the insurance industry will lower rates. 

Finally, there may potentially be a weight exemption offered for the extra weight of adding side guards, which would mean they wouldn’t have to carry less freight because of the added weight. 

What can readers do to help encourage underride protection on trucks? 

One thing they can do to help is to sign our online petition. If they do so it will send an email to their legislators asking them to support the Stop Underrides Act. 

Making direct calls or emails to legislators will also help. If people are involved in organizations they can ask those organizations to send a letter of support, and they can spread awareness by sharing this article on social media. 

The bottom line is that this is an engineering problem and we can do something about it. What I want people to do who read about this and hear about this is to understand that an underride accident can happen to anyone at any time. 

I want people to get angry and say, “This is wrong and this needs to change!” The Stop Underrides Act can’t just sit in Congress and not go anywhere—it needs to pass. The DOT needs to get the message because they have known about this problem for decades.