Steps to increase underride protection aren't moving too quickly in Washington

  Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

In the last few years, there have been significant federal initiatives to mandate underride guards on trucks. Neither have gone anywhere.

It may be too early to declare the latest attempt as dead. It was introduced in Congress only in January. In the Senate, its key sponsor is Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York).   In the House of Representatives, Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) sponsored an identical bill. The legislation just manages to pass the bipartisan definition; it has Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida as a co-sponsor, but he is the only member of the GOP to sign on to the bill.

The legislation, and a proposed rule from the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration, is aimed at stopping accidents, fatal or otherwise, that occur when a smaller car smashes into a truck and winds up underneath the bigger vehicle. Both the House and Senate bills say they were introduced "in the memory of the thousands of victims of underride crashes," and then list several dozen names.

That bill, called the Stop Underrides Act of 2017, would do something that is not in current regulations: require side guards to protect against underrides that come in to a truck from an angle closer to 90 degrees than from on a line with how the truck is traveling. The standard for the side guards is that it would apply to trucks of more than 10,000 pounds. The rule for new builds would kick in a year after the bill becomes a law; retrofits would be required after two years

The standard of its effectiveness is that it would need to block the "intrusion" from a truck into another vehicle's "passenger compartment" at speeds up to 35 mph for the smaller vehicle. The angle that the smaller vehicle might come in at is listed as anywhere from 10 degrees to 90 degrees.

It would also require front guards as well. The intrusion of a car into the front of a truck is obviously a more complicated collision than if it hits the side or the back, and the wording of the legislation seems to acknowledge that.

It requires the Secretary of Transportation to issue a rule on installing front guards two years after the bill were to become a law. But it also requires the DOT secretary to conclude a research study after one year on how to equip a truck with front guards "to prevent trucks from overriding the passenger vehicle."

The bills were introduced in mid-December, with the requisite press releases being put out by its sponsors. But according to the tracking webpage for all legislation in Congress, it has been referred to its respective committees and gone nowhere since then.

The bill does not ignore the rear portion of the truck. It spells out the standards that need to be met going forward. Like the regulation with side guards, it specifies 35 mph as the speed up to which the guards must be effective in preventing a vehicle from intruding under the truck. It spells out that the rear guard must be able to protect against a collision in which the car colliding with the rear of the trucks "impacts the center of the rear of the trailer," as well as if the collision impacts 50 or 30% of the car.

For truck owners, the issue goes beyond the installation of the guards. Inevitably, if a car ends up underneath a truck, there’s going to be blame placed on the truck driver. Video recording of a truck’s surroundings, like the system provided by SmartDrive, accomplishes that goal. You can see a video link here of what such a system will record.

What the effort regarding additional guard rails—stronger in the rear, new on the sides and likely new on the front—is that it is a 360-degree issue. A truck company will want to know precisely what happened, and where it happened. Only 360-degree recording will provide that. The view would look like this.

What is called for in the Gillibrand/Rubio/Cohen bill is far more sweeping than two proposed rules to avoid rear end collisions introduced by the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration back in 2015 that simply fizzled out without a final rule being implemented. (The Federal Register notices for the proposed rules can be found here and here.)

According to a spokesman for the NHTSA, both are now considered "long term action items" by the Trump administration, and are on the Unified Agenda, which is a compilation of regulatory actions that are in various longer-term stages of enactment or effectively put into a waiting room.

One of the rules would have extended rear panel underride requirements to single unit trucks. The second would have set the performance standard of rear impact guards to 35 mph, compared to the existing standard of 30 mph, which the Federal Register proposal noted is the standard in Canada. The 35 mph standard makes another appearance in the Congressional proposal.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has been a leading advocate of a tougher 35 mph standard, as well as side underride guards. The IIHS is cited in the NHTSA proposed rules as being a force behind those now-stalled proposals.

About a year ago, it put out the results of tests that it had undertaken on the effectiveness of side underrides. In one test, a side underride protection device build by AirFlow Deflector was tested against a "fiberglass side skirt designed to improve aerodynamics, not to prevent underride," the IIHS said in a release about the tests. The manufacturer of the "skirt" was not identified.

"In both tests, a midsize car struck the center of a 53-foot-long dry van trailer," the report said. "In the AngelWing test, the underride guard bent but didn't allow the car to go underneath the trailer, so the car's airbags and safety belt could properly restrain the test dummy in the driver seat. In the second test with no underride guard for protection, the car ran into the trailer and kept going. The impact sheared off part of the roof, and the sedan became wedged beneath the trailer."