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Government watchdogs urge review of underride guard requirements

Photo credit: Wabash National

Federal regulators have agreed to begin inspecting rear guards on trucks as part of routine annual inspections as recommended by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The recommendation, made to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), was one of four published by the watchdog group on April 15 as part of a review analyzing data on truck underride crashes and other information related to truck underride guards.

GAO also recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) look into providing a standardized definition of underride crashes and data fields, share information with police departments to identify underride crashes, and conduct more research on side underride guards.

Responding on behalf of its agencies, the U.S. Department of Transportation concurred with all four recommendations and agreed to provide more detailed responses later in 2019.

Fatalities from underride crashes involving large trucks – which typically occur when a passenger car slides at least part way beneath the rear or side of the truck – represented less than 1 percent of all traffic fatalities annually between 2008-2017, according to crash data reported to NHTSA by police. But the average of 219 deaths reported annually “are likely underreported due to variability in state and local data collection,” according to GAO.

Police responders don’t use a standard definition of an underride crash, for example, with some states not including a field for underride data. “Further, police officers receive limited information on how to identify and record underride crashes,” GAO stated. “As a result, NHTSA may not have accurate data to support efforts to reduce traffic fatalities.”

The report noted that NHTSA has proposed strengthening rear-guard requirements for tractor trailers, and estimated that about 95 percent of all newly manufactured trailers already meet the stronger requirements. However, “although tractor-trailers are inspected, [FMCSA] annual inspection regulations do not require the rear guard to be inspected, so damaged guards that could fail in a crash may be on the roadways.”

Last year the eight largest manufacturers of rear underride guards – representing 80 percent of the market – were given the highest rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

GAO also pointed out that while side underride guards are being developed, companies and industry groups interviewed by the GAO contended there were challenges to using them, such as stress on trailer frames caused by the added weight. Manufacturers told GAO they are “unlikely to move forward with development” of side guards without more research into their cost and effectiveness.

Companion bills in the U.S. House and Senate seeking to strengthen underride guard regulations – including requiring side guards – were introduced in 2017 but failed. Reintroduced in March 2019, the “Stop Underrides Act” has been strongly opposed by large trucking groups, including the American Trucking Associations and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, citing cost and other factors.

“Equipping the roughly 3.2 million trailers and semi-trailers pulled by Class 7 and 8 tractors and the overall 35 million commercial trucks (all classes) in the U.S with side and front underride guards will far exceed the $10 billion the industry currently spends annually on safety,” Daniel Horvath, ATA’s Vice President for Safety Policy, wrote to lawmakers.

“As a result, the Stop Underrides Act would divert a significant amount of NHTSA and industry resources away from important crash avoidance technologies with wide-ranging benefits in all types of crashes to focus on a narrow type of crash and specific countermeasure unproven in real-world applications.”

Underride guard inspections have been moving up the priority list of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, which plans to deploy approximately 9,000 inspectors throughout North America to ensure the equipment meets federal regulations as part of its annual Roadcheck blitz scheduled for June 4-6.

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.