Truck underride roundtable addresses problem of deadly crashes

May 6, 2016

A car crashes into the back of a Stoughton trailer in a test of its underride guard conducted during the roundtable.

Ruckersville, Va. — Nearly 90 researchers, safety advocates, policymakers and industry representatives came together at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Vehicle Research Center to tackle the problem of large truck underride crashes.

The May 5 roundtable was sponsored by IIHS, the Truck Safety Coalition and AnnaLeah and Mary for Truck Safety. The goal was to examine the scope of the problem and explore ways to reduce the risks through voluntary action and regulation. Better underride guard designs, guards for the rear and sides of single-unit trucks, increased conspicuity, stronger enforcement of existing laws and adoption of crash avoidance systems were among the countermeasures explored.

In an underride crash, a passenger vehicle goes partially or wholly under a truck or trailer, increasing the likelihood of death or serious injury to people riding in the smaller vehicle. Side underride crashes often involve pedestrians and bicyclists and are a particular issue in urban areas.

Underride guards, steel bars that hang from large trucks, are required for the backs of semitrailers but not the sides of trailers or the fronts of large trucks. An upgraded standard for rear underride guards is pending with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). A requirement for rear guards on single-unit trucks, such as garbage trucks and delivery trucks, also is under consideration.

Presenters at the roundtable included representatives from IIHS, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Airflow Deflector Inc., City of Boston Mayor's Office, Interstate Distributor Co., National Transportation Safety Board, New York City Fleet Services, NHTSA, Truck Safety Coalition, Vanguard National Trailer Corp., Virginia Tech's Tractor Trailer Bumper Design Team and Volpe. People who lost loved ones in truck underride crashes shared their stories.

One was Marianne Karth, who lost her teenage daughters AnnaLeah and Mary in an underride crash in 2013. Karth's husband, Jerry, and their son Isaac also were on hand for the conference. Working with IIHS and the Truck Safety Coalition, Karth and her family were instrumental in organizing the roundtable.

Families affected by truck underride
Family members of truck underride crash victims speak in front of a timeline of efforts to address the issue.

"Our hope was that we could bring together people from a variety of organizations and companies that have the power and authority to do something to address the problem and get them communicating and figure out where to go from here," Karth said. "There's more work to do. I hope that everybody here will take it to heart to move heaven and earth to make the best possible protection to prevent underride crashes."

Rear underride crash test

As part of the event, IIHS evaluated a new rear underride guard design on a 2016 Stoughton semitrailer. In the test, 30 percent of the front of a 2010 Chevrolet Malibu struck the trailer at its outermost corner at 35 mph. The configuration represents a condition in which most older rear guard designs haven't offered sufficient underride protection in real-world crashes.

Stoughton's underride guard stopped the oncoming Malibu, preserving survival space for the test dummy in the driver's seat of the car and preventing the dummy's head from contacting the rear of the trailer itself. When that happens, injury measures taken from the dummy almost always indicate certain death for a person in a real crash. An earlier model Stoughton trailer failed a previous 30 percent overlap test run by IIHS. Gary Felton, vice president of engineering for Stoughton Trailers, said the manufacturer redesigned the guard to provide better protection in overlap crashes and plans to make the new guard standard on its trailers.

IIHS has evaluated multiple trailers from eight of the largest trailer manufacturers in North America. The 2016 Stoughton is the fourth trailer to successfully stop underride in the toughest underride guard evaluation. Ahead of Thursday's roundtable, IIHS on April 29 evaluated a new rear-impact guard on a 2016 Wabash National trailer. The Wabash aced the 30 percent overlap test. Trailers from Manac Inc. and Vanguard also have received good marks.

The tests are part of an IIHS research program to encourage better rear underride guards that won't buckle or break away when a trailer gets rear-ended by another vehicle. Without waiting for an updated federal regulation, trailer manufacturers have voluntarily made changes to their guard designs in order to improve protection in rear impacts. The changes exceed current regulations in place in the U.S. and Canada, as well as NHTSA's proposed requirements.

Truck safety marketplace

"We had no idea if there would be a safety marketplace for large trucks when we began our crash tests," Matthew Brumbelow, an IIHS senior research engineer who has extensively studied truck underride crashes, shared with the audience. "We at the Institute have been really encouraged by the response from trailer manufacturers."

Mark Roush, vice president of engineering with Vanguard, participated in the afternoon panel discussion. Vanguard is one of the trailer manufacturers that voluntarily improved their underride guards. Roush credited IIHS research and the Karth family's advocacy for raising awareness of the underride problem and ways to address it.

"As far as we knew we were producing trailers to what we thought was the highest regulatory standard, and then the IIHS test came in and made us aware of what was happening," Roush said. "Three of our largest customers forwarded letters from you [Karth] asking us to do more." The Karths personally wrote the largest trailer makers seeking their help in building better rear guards.

David Zuby, IIHS executive vice president and chief research officer, wrapped up the day with a call for continued cooperation and research.

"The one thing I hope everyone takes away from this is that there has been a lot of progress in recent years on underride crashes, and there will be more ahead. We heard from Virginia Tech students who are about to graduate and are already thinking about how to make underride guards better. And you heard from Matt Brumbelow about how guards are being designed to prevent types of underride crashes that weren't addressed before. We are optimistic that we can solve this problem working together."

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