Semi-truck underride accidents: Is it time for side underride bars?

Advocates are pushing for federal legislative or regulatory requirement of side underride bars on semi trucks to protect those in smaller passenger vehicles.

Drivers on U.S. roads are accustomed to seeing rear underride guard rails suspended horizontally from the beds of big rigs designed to stop people in smaller vehicle from sliding underneath large trucks in collisions. Many drivers, however, are too young to remember the fatal accident that happened 50 years ago in the summer of 1967 in which 34-year-old actress Jayne Mansfield died when her Buick did just that near New Orleans.

Rear underride guards

It was that horrific truck-car crash that spurred safety advocates to successfully push for a federal mandate for rear underride protections. According to WTOP, rear underride bars are called "Mansfield bars" in memory of the prematurely deceased actress and are 61 centimeters (about two feet) off the ground.

Side impact protection

Now, a movement is afoot that is pushing for expansion of underride guard requirements to include side bars. Citing federal statistics, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or IIHS reports that in 2015, out of 1,542 occupants of passenger vehicles who died in accidents involving tractor-trailers, 301 died in truck-side crashes and 292 in collisions involving the rear of trucks. IIHS believes that about half of these accidents probably resulted in underride.

Side guard research

IIHS has been studying the feasibility and benefit of strong underride bars on the sides of trucks and estimates that injury from side impact would likely drop in about 75 percent of fatal or serious-injury side truck impact accidents. IIHS released new test results in May 2017 in which two cars engaged in simulated side accidents at 35 mph. The first car equipped with crash dummies struck the side of a 53-foot trailer equipped with AngelWing side underride guards and a second car struck one with only a fiberglass side skirt designed to "improve aerodynamics," but not to stop underride accidents.

In the collision with the guard, the device bent but was able to keep the car from sliding under the truck. The airbags and seat belt provided needed protection. In the test with only the side skirt, the car drove under the trailer, which sheared off the roof of the car and would probably have killed the occupants.

New regulation

In a recent article, trucks.com discussed efforts to get tougher underride laws passed. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA, a federal agency, reportedly proposed toughening U.S. standards for rear guards by adopting those used in Canada, but this has not happened yet. Canadian guards must be able to absorb "about twice as much force" as is required in the U.S., according to a quoted Canadian rear-guard manufacturer.

Trucks.com also reported that since 1989 both rear and side underride guards have been required on European semi trucks.

A coalition of parents who have lost children in underride accidents has drafted proposed federal legislation called the Roya, AnnaLeah and Mary Comprehensive Underride Protection Act of 2017, which would put teeth in rear-guard regulation and require side guards. Advocates for trucking safety will watch with interest to see if this effort progresses.

In the meantime, anyone injured in an accident with a big rig should speak with an experienced truck accident lawyer to understand potential legal remedies.

The personal injury attorneys at Philpot Law Firm, PA, in Greenville, advocate for justice for the injured victims of truck accidents throughout the state of South Carolina.