Underride Activists Campaign with Crash Tests

If you can’t get a member of Congress to the crash test site, bring it to them – at least that was the thinking of underride activists Marianne Karth and Lois Durso, in hosting three tests yesterday to demonstrate the efficacy of underride guards.

The tests, held in a parking lot near Audi Field, two miles from the U.S. Capital in Washington D.C., used Chevy Malibus as the bullet car, striking the side of a tractor trailer at about 30 mph – one test using a trailer equipped with an AngelWing type side underride guard, one with a different side guard design and one without. Industry representatives, and staff members from the Department of Transportation, the Senate commerce committee, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee looked on as the underride guards in the first two tests engaged and crushed the front end of the vehicle, which bore the brunt of the crash force, leaving the windshield and roof untouched.

Video: WUSA9 and MGA

“The results were pretty dramatic,” says Durso, who lost her 26-year old daughter Roya Sadigh in a side underride crash in Indiana on November 26, 2004. “In the crash without the underride guard, the entire top half of the car peeled off from the windshield back. The thing about these crashes is, if you think about what [movie star] Jayne Mansfield’s car looked like, today’s cars look just like that after an underride crash. Cars have gotten safer, but underride crashes are just as deadly as they were in the 1960s.”

(Mansfield died on in a horrific underride crash in Louisiana in June 1969.)

Each year, some 4,000 people die in crashes with large trucks. From 1994-2014 more than 5,000 people died in underride crashes, and the official underride death toll estimate is 200 motorists annually. But these figures are likely under-counts, because police, and other crash data collectors often do not characterize truck-car crashes as such. For example, the crashes involving Karth and Durso’s children were not classified as underride incidents.  

But Durso and Karth know that whatever the number is, it could be lower. They hoped that the demonstration would make the point that there are ready solutions to the hazard, and would push forward legislation that would, in turn, push forward an underride rulemaking that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration undertook in 2015. 

Karth became an activist for truck underride safety after a May 2013 underride crash that killed two of her nine children, 17-year-old Annaleah and 13-year-old Mary. Karth was on a Georgia highway approaching slowed traffic, when a semi trying to switch lanes hit the Karth vehicle in the rear, sending it underneath another tractor trailer. Yesterday, Karth said that she last met with NHTSA in the late fall, but has no idea if or when the agency will advance the rulemaking.

“That’s why we drafted the legislation,” she said after the tests. “We wanted to have something [Congress] could see and hear, something that would stick in their minds, and they wouldn’t be able to sleep until they did something about it.”

The STOP Underrides Act, first introduced in 2017, by Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) 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.

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 December 2015, the agency initiated a separate Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to align the two U.S. standards, FMVSS 223 and FMVSS 224 with the 2007 Canadian standard for rear impact guards. This was the first major upgrade to the rear impact protection standards for trucks in 21 years, long enough for the new rule to do little to upset the trucking industry: NHTSA estimated that “93 percent of new trailers sold in the U.S. subject to FMVSS Nos. 223 and 224 are already designed to comply with CMVSS No. 223.”

The proposed upgrade would mandate that rear impact guards meet new strength requirements at specified test locations. Specifically, the current quasi-static point load test at the area around the guard’s vertical support location would be replaced by a uniform distributed load test of 350,000 Newtons (N). The performance standards would require the rear impact guard to resist the 350,000 N load without deflecting more than 125 mm, absorb at least 20,000 Joules of energy within 125 mm of guard deflection. The proposal would also require that any portion of the guard and the guard attachments not completely separate from its mounting structure after completing the test.

NHTSA did not lower the guard height from the current 22 inches, nor did it extend the standard’s applicability to currently excluded classes of truck configurations, such as wheels back trailers, pole trailers, logging trailers, low chassis trailers and specialty equipment trucks.

In the three years hence, the NPRM to codify what the trucking industry is already doing has languished. Last October, NHTSA withdrew the ANPRM for better conspicuity and underride guards on single-unit truck, saying that based on its analysis of the costs, it could not justify taking further action. The STOP Underrides Act sits in committee in both chambers. Durso and Karth are currently lobbying the respective committee chairs for their support.

“In 50 years, nothing has happened and people keep dying,” Durso says. “Fourteen years ago, I suffered this unimaginable loss and 14 years later, I’m still at it. We know the technology is available.”