Truck trailers can (easily) be made safer

Our view: Crash tests show that hundreds of lives might be saved if future truck trailers were required to have relatively inexpensive underride guards along their sides

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a widely-respected safety advocacy organization financed by the insurance industry, recently conducted tests on truck trailers that produced eye-opening results. Researchers looked at what are known as “underride guards” that are installed along the bottom of the sides of the 53-foot-long trailers commonly towed by big rigs. The guards are meant keep cars from becoming wedged underneath in a crash. Their conclusion? Such relatively simple devices could save hundreds of lives on the road.

Congress and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ought to mandate underride guards as soon as possible. IIHS estimates that half of all fatalities in crashes involving cars colliding with trucks involve cars striking the side of trailers. In 2015, an estimated 301 vehicle occupants died in crashes involving tractor-trailers when their passenger vehicles struck the side of a tractor trailer.

It’s not difficult to understand how such collisions became deadly. While trucks have front and back-mounted guards to protect cars from rolling up under trucks in head-on crashes, striking the side of a trailer can lead to the trailer shearing off the top of the smaller vehicle. No seat belt or air bag is going to protect a driver or passenger from such a devastating circumstance. The IIHS report further notes that some truck trailers already have flimsy fiberglass side guards designed to lessen wind resistance and do little to protect anyone in a crash.

Yet highway safety advocates harbor serious doubts that the Trump administration or the Republican-controlled Congress will be willing to take this potentially lifesaving action. Why? Simply because the political will to challenge the trucking industry may not be there. The industry has known about this problem for years but fretted about the added expense and weight of installing guards. Nor would this be the first time that tougher safety standards have been recommended by experts but nixed by the trucking industry: An effort to require trucks to have speed limiters has gone nowhere since it was first petitioned to the U.S. Department of Transportation 14 years ago.

As Jackie Gillan, president of the non-profit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, observed after the latest round of crash testing data was released, truck crash fatalities represent the equivalent of a commercial airline falling out of the sky every week yet “the most important and lifesaving technologies to improve truck safety have been ignored or delayed.” The impact of those roadblocks add up quickly: between 1994 and 2014, more than 1,500 people were killed in side underride collisions.

That’s not to pick on professional truckers who have an important job to do but the problem is simply one of physics. Whether truck drivers are personally at fault in crashes or not, the injuries resulting when 80,000-pound big rigs crash with much lighter vehicles are likely to be severe for their occupants. Nationwide, highways deaths are on the rise with more than 4,000 killed in crashes involving large trucks in 2015. The cost to society is no small matter either — an estimated $112 billion in 2014, according to safety advocates.

One of the added problems with underride guards? Existing specifications for rear underride guards are outdated and based on 1980s considerations. Advocates want the industry to embrace a proposal NHTSA floated in 2015 that matches more stringent Canadian standards with guards that are stronger and larger and are requires on the sides, too.

President Donald Trump is fond of decrying government regulations as harmful to the economy, but while requiring trailer manufacturers to upgrade their product in the future may cost trucking firms more in the short run, it is bound to save the nation in lives and insurance costs and spare families extraordinary suffering. If we know we can save hundreds of lives with an investment that amounts to perhaps $50 to $100 per trailer, is it reasonable to decide that all those potential victims aren’t worth that expense? If the question was put to a vote, is there any doubt about America’s preference?

Underride crashes aren’t new. Hollywood starlet Jayne Mansfield famously died in such a crash a half-century ago (June 28, 1967 to be exact). And the technology to prevent them, including side underrides, is now well proven. The only real obstacle is whether the nation’s elected leaders in Washington are willing to require the safety upgrade despite trucking industry opposition.

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