The Underride Danger Posed By Large Trucks

Underride crashes are deadly and we know how to prevent them, but the trucking industry has long fought regulations that would protect the lives of other motorists

Truck crashes are a frightening prospect for any driver on the streets and highways of California. Typically, large semi-trucks weigh 80,000 pounds. They may consist of a single or double trailer combination and when traveling at highway speeds, present a significant threat to all other vehicles on the road should a driver lose control and crash.

Crashes can happen for innumerable reasons, with truck drivers driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, being distracted by illegal electronic devices in the cab or because they have fallen asleep after driving too many hours.

The problem of underride

Head-on collisions are often deadly for the occupants of other vehicles, given the great weight disparity of these massive trucks. However, there is one type of crash that could be made much more survivable for passengers in smaller cars and trucks.

When a tractor-trailer stops on a California highway because of congestion or the never-ending road construction, the rear of the trailer presents a unique danger to all passenger cars, pickup trucks and SUVs. Because of the need to have a flat bed for the trailer, to allow forklifts and pallet jacks access to remove cargo, the bed of the trailer is mounted over the rear wheels.

This elevates the bed of the trailer, leaving it above the hood of most other vehicles. Perhaps you have noted when you are sitting at a stoplight that you are looking directly at the floor of the trailer in front of your car.

Not only does this place the trailer deck at eye-level, but also it means all of the energy absorbing structure of your vehicle, designed to crumple and minimize the risk of injuries and death to the vehicle occupants, is below the level of the main structure of the trailer.

Why after 50 years is the problem still not fixed?

It does not take much imagination to understand the danger and threat posed by these trailers. Nor is this a recent development. What is described as "underride" has been a known danger for more than 50 years.

In 1967, the movie actor Jayne Mansfield was killed when the car she was riding in crashed into the back of a slow-moving tractor-trailer on a foggy highway. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommended after that crash that all trailers be equipped with an underride guard that would prevent such tragic accidents.

Trailers do have what are known as underride guards, but on most trucks, they would be ineffective for any but the lowest speed crashes.

Depending on when they were built, trailers on the roads today do have to comply with safety standards, but many of those standards are decades old and inadequate. The trucking industry has spent years opposing the necessary improvements needed to protect drivers from these deadly crashes. The industry complains about the cost. They have been successful, which is why some trailers still only meet the 1953 standards.

In spite of the $700 billion in revenue generated every year by the shipping of goods across the nation on trucks, the industry claims poverty and that too few people die in underride crashes to make it worth the expense. More than 2,200 people have died in known underride accidents during a 10-year period, but it probably is greater due to the accuracy of data collection.

While this ghoulish argument may appeal to trucking industry accountants, motorists in passenger vehicles, observing the rear decks of trailers at eye-level, should wonder how many drivers would have to die for the accountants to recognize this safety improvement as being worthwhile?

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