The Case for (and Against) Underride Safety Guards

Crash crash with tractor trailer

The transportation industry has a unique set of challenges when it comes to safety. Tractor trailers take skill to properly operate, they’re unwieldly and vulnerable to poor driving conditions, and their sheer size and number makes accidents a reality of the road. There’s a type of accident known as an “underride,” however, that may not have to remain an inevitability.

Underride accidents happen when a smaller vehicle, like a passenger car, crashes into a truck and goes completely or partially underneath the truck. These crashes are particularly dangerous for passenger car drivers because their airbags are unlikely to engage, making fatalities a near certainty. According to a report conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), there were 1,542 deaths in two-vehicle crashes involving tractor trailers in 2015, and they estimate that half of those involved underride.

There’s an effort underway to mandate the installation of side guards, called Angel Wings, which have been proven in crash tests to stop underride from passenger cars in side-impact accidents. "Broader use of devices like this one, combined with continued improvements to rear underride guards, would go a long way toward reducing deaths in large truck crashes," according to a written statement from David Zuby, the executive vice president of the IIHS. Family members of victims of such accidents have recently lobbied Congress to pass laws requiring these new safety measures, in the hopes of sparing other families their trauma.

This potential advancement in trucking safety isn’t without downsides. The weight of these guards is significant enough that it would require reduced payload per truck, and more trucks on the road to compensate. This escalation in fleet numbers would likely cancel out any safety gains made as a result of installing the guards, according to Jeff Simms, President of the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association, who spoke with the press about this issue. Then there’s the not-insignificant cost per vehicle, and a new physical footprint for each truck which could cause complications with road clearance when crossing train tracks and other obstacles.

Congress has yet to vote on the proposed bill, and the potential ramifications for the industry are still being researched. So while this isn’t a clear win for trucking safety, it’s encouraging to see strides being taken to safeguard not only members of the trucking industry but also the civilians with whom they share the road.

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