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Safety groups urge NHTSA to reconsider underride guard rule

Agency failed to acknowledge crucial crash data, groups assert

A coalition of safety groups want federal regulators to postpone a recent rule on truck-trailer performance standards until the new regulation can be significantly improved.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulation, scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 11, 2023, is “fatally flawed,” the safety groups assert, because it failed to consider crucial data on crashes in which passenger cars slide under the rear end of tractor-trailers due to insufficient protection on the back of the trailer.

“For those of us who have lost loved ones in these incredibly violent underride crashes, the rule is exasperating and heartbreaking,” said Jennifer Tierney, a board member of the Truck Safety Coalition (TSC), part of the groups filing a petition for reconsideration with NHTSA.

“We urge U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and NHTSA Administrator Steve Cliff to take immediate action to improve the rule to protect all road users and prevent future needless tragedies.”

NHTSA’s final rule, issued on July 15, adopted requirements similar to Canada’s standard for rear impact guards. Rear guards on truck trailers will be required to “provide sufficient strength and energy absorption to protect occupants of compact and subcompact passenger cars impacting the rear of trailers” at 35 mph (56 kph).

The rule is designed to improve protection in crashes in which a passenger car hits the center of the rear of the trailer, according to NHTSA, and in which 50% of the width of the passenger motor vehicle overlaps the rear of the trailer.

But TSC and its partner, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates), argue that the final rule fails to meet a directive included in last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) requiring a tighter standard for underride guards that better protect cars in the event of a crash, based on data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“NHTSA estimates in the final rule that 94% of trailers and semitrailers already meet its proposed minimum performance standard, scarcely achieving measurable progress in underride safety,” the groups state in their petition. “Setting an unreasonably low standard for underride safety will diminish market demand for strong underride guards as compliance can now be achieved with substandard guards.”

The groups also point out that the rule acknowledges the cost differential of readily available guards meeting IIJA’s requirements ranges between $100-$1,000 — “a fraction of the cost to purchase and maintain” a commercial truck.

The safety group’s petition follows an announcement earlier this month that Cliff is leaving NHTSA to head the California Air Resources Board. Advocates called the absence of a Senate-confirmed leader at the agency “deeply concerning at a time when traffic fatalities have climbed to historically high levels,” and urged President Joe Biden to “swiftly nominate a new administrator to fill this important role.” 

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

24 Comments

  1. Why don’t they do something for the idiots in the cars who aren’t paying attention to driving like they should, that alone will reduce a lot of accidents! Most of the truck/ auto accidents are caused by Joe Q public are caused by drivers who want to play games behind their own vehicle and they usually loose and sometimes they lose their life and or their loves ones! After 20 years on the road as a trainer I have to say things have gotten worse since they took drivers education out of the schools! Maybe you should start there first! They had those rear guards on the trailer years ago and all they did for anyone was tell drivers that they hit the dock and bent them under the trailer, then they become a Hazzard! Make people start doing what they are supposed to do when they are behind the wheel, PAY ATTENTION TO THE ROAD otherwise let someone else drive!! I truly don’t approve of putting those rear guards back on the trailer, besides it will cut down the freight or fresh produce we can haul, just think about it before you do anything!

  2. It’s funny, we regulate the transport industry to death. The “regular” driver has no real restrictions whatsoever, and that’s as it should be, but then you want to add even MORE regulation to an already grossly over regulated industry. How bout this, statistically speaking , the advent of ELD’s has caused a dramatic increase in “fatigue” based accidents . Forcing drivers to adhere to a “one size fits all” mandate that does nothing except grant large companies unfathomable license to force drivers to operate, even when they know it’s detrimental and dangerous.
    How about we enforce the “regular” traffic laws and stop 4-wheeler drivers from driving like idiots all while expecting the “professional” to accommodate their(4-wheel driver) lack of adherence to the law.
    Crash bumpers on trailers is no substitute for simply slowing down and not tailgating semi’s..

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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.