The General Accounting Office added some weight to the arguments safety advocates have been making for decades about the need for the government to more vigorously tackle the truck underride problem. This week, the GAO released the results of a study to support the consideration of the STOP Underrides Act (S. 666 / H.R. 1511), which would, among other things, require the trucking industry increase its installation of these protective guards. The title, Truck Underride Guards- Improved Data Collection, Inspections, and Research Needed, summed up the report’s central conclusions.
Underride activists Marianne Karth and Lois Durso were less than impressed. These recommendations, they said, can be tossed on a stack of similar suggestions made by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) going back as far as 1992.
“The report basically sums up everything we’ve been telling Congress for the last few years,” says Karth, who took up the cause of requiring trucks to be outfitted with effective underride guards after a May 2013 underride crash that killed two of her nine children, 17-year-old AnnaLeah and 13-year-old Mary. Karth’s vehicle was propelled under the rear of a tractor trailer by another semi trying to switch lanes. “It’s too easy for those who don’t want to be in the position of taking action on the bill to say ‘Oh, we need more data,’ and use it for an excuse for further inaction. Yes, they made some good recommendations, but these are things we already knew and NHTSA already knew, and there are no timelines, no teeth in it, nothing to hold them accountable.”
From January 2018 to March 2019, the GAO reviewed the literature and interviewed a wide range of stakeholders, including representatives of the trucking industry, underride guard developers, law enforcement officials, and transportation safety officials from the European Union, Canada, NHTSA, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the NTSB and the IIHS.
U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) Chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, along with colleagues Richard Burr (R-NC); Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and John Thune (R-SD) asked for the assessment to provide context for the STOP Underrides Act, originally introduced in December 2017 and re-introduced last month. The legislation, sponsored by Gillibrand, Rubio and Congressman Stephen Cohen (D-TN) would require the Department of Transportation to issue a final rule to require an upgrade to the rear underride standard and add a requirement for front and side underride guards that meet a performance standard on all trailers, semi-trailers, and single unit trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds. The bill also includes retrofit provisions and maintenance requirements, and compels the DOT to finish its research on front underride guard for commercial trucks.
Much of the report concentrated on the lack of accurate data. The GAO analyzed underride crash data and fatalities from 2008 through 2017, finding in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) figures a range, per year, of 189 to 253 truck underride fatalities, an annual average of about 219 fatalities – less than one percent of total annual death toll and 5.5 percent of all fatalities related to large truck crashes during this time frame. At the same time, the report acknowledged that underride crashes are among those types of crashes that have the most severe consequences for passenger vehicle occupants, because of the intrusion. It also recognized that the fatality figures are a likely under-count, because there is no uniform collection of underride data among the nation’s different crash reporters, especially police departments, which may not have a place on their accident reporting forms to note an underride crash. Researchers at the IIHS and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) told the GAO that even the FARS data missed underride crashes.
The report explored the advances in underride guard technology and systems that make it possible for trucks to reduce their incompatibility with passenger vehicles. It documented the development of crashworthy side underride guards, including one IIHS-crash-tested aftermarket manufacturer of side underride guards, which has sold about 100 sets of side underride guards, at about $2,500 per trailer. Additionally, some trailer manufacturers reported that they were in the process of developing side underride guards.
The GAO also noted that a 2015 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to align the two U.S. underride standards, FMVSS 223 and FMVSS 224 with the 2007 Canadian standard for rear impact guards, has not yet been completed. (See NHTSA Proposes to Affirm Canadian Underride Standard) This would be the first major upgrade to the rear impact protection standards for trucks in 21 years, and would merely codify what 95 percent of the industry is already doing. In 2014, Marianne and Jerry Karth, and the Truck Safety Coalition petitioned the Secretary of Transportation to raise the minimum level of insurance for truck drivers, for a final rule on electronic logging devices to reduce truck driver fatigue; and to improve the rear underride guard rules. NHTSA granted the Karth petition in July 2014 and a year later, the agency published an ANPRM to consider conspicuity and rear impact guard standards for single unit trucks. In October, NHTSA withdrew the ANPRM, saying that based on its analysis of the costs, it could not justify taking further action.
The GAO also examined the FMCSA regulatory role in ensuring that the rear impact guards currently required were actually safe, by requiring annual inspections. The current rules do not specifically include an inspection of the rear guard, even though trucking industry representatives told the GAO that the guard may be damaged during normal use, such as backing into loading docks, but would escape notice unless pulled out for a random road inspection: “Stakeholders we interviewed told us that a trailer could go its entire lifecycle—estimated as typically 10 to 15 years—without ever being selected for a roadside inspection,” the report said.
GAO made several recommendations. First, it suggested that the NHTSA Administrator improve data collection by recommending that the expert panel of the Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria update it to standardize the definition of underride crashes and to include underride as a recommended data field. The Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria, developed in 1998, identifies motor vehicle crash data elements and their definitions that states should consider collecting. The report also recommended that NHTSA educate state and local police departments on the identification and documentation of underride crashes. The GAO recommended that the FMCSA chief revise regulations to require the inspection of rear guards during commercial vehicles’ annual inspections. Finally, it recommended that NHTSA further research on side underride guards to better understand the overall effectiveness and cost associated with these guards and, if warranted, develop standards for their implementation.
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association reacted to the report by commenting that the data did not support taking any further action to prevent underrides. Durso says the message is actually the opposite.
“We’ve heard this same litany of excuses for 10, 20 years. We know that underride fatalities are grossly under-counted,” said Durso, who lost her 26-year old daughter Roya Sadigh in a side underride crash in Indiana on November 26, 2004. “And when you do a cost-benefit analysis based on underreported numbers, the results are skewed.” Nonetheless, she added, “we think 2-300 people dying is enough to do something about it. We know you can’t prevent crashes, but you can prevent the fatality with underride protection and that’s what the main point of the bill. Everything in the GAO report is already addressed in STOP Underrides Act.”
The report follows a crash-test demonstration in Washington D.C. less than three weeks ago hosted by Karth and Durso to demonstrate the efficacy of side underride guards. The tests used Chevy Malibus as the bullet car, striking the side of a tractor trailer at about 30 mph, with and without side underride guards. Industry representatives, and staff members from the Department of Transportation, the Senate commerce committee, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee watched as the side underride guards engaged the Malibu, crushing the front end, but leaving the windshield and roof intact.
Karth says that their experiences as underride activists taught them that the inertia was due to “the total lack of collaboration and communication between industry, government, engineers, and safety advocates,” she said in a long email. “It really bothered me that that situation stood in the way of effective progress in solving the underride problem. Out of that birthed the idea of holding an Underride Roundtable and we proceeded to spearhead organizing two of them. At first I tried to get NHTSA to host it but they said that they could not but would attend and encouraged me to go ahead with plans to do so. The Roundtables were beneficial and brought people together to talk and listen and observe. And it contributed to putting public pressure on the trailer manufacturers to step up to the plate. But it didn’t lead to any action on NHTSA’s part (although they had people present at the events). Because IIHS was gracious to host them, we were able to have crash tests as part of both Roundtables. Who can argue with the evidence before your very eyes? But what I learned was that no one could hold NHTSA accountable. They were not transparent. They did not foster collaborative discussions or actions.”
Karth says that one of the most important lessons of working on the bill was the need to overcome the obstacle created by the lack of transparency and communication. The activists are promoting the creation of a Committee on Underride Protection, with a representative from every stakeholder group participating to foster effective communication and engineering and logistical problem-solving.
“We are at a fork in the road, a decision point,” Karth added. “This GAO report confirms what we already know and yet we are continuing to let people die, when we know we could do something about it. Congress, the ball is in your court.”