In March of 2022, three people lost their lives in an underride accident in Shamrock, Texas. The driver, Jeremy Lewis, failed to brake in time and slammed into the back of a tractor-trailer. The truck had slowed down in traffic caused by another accident up the road. Jeremy’s car slid under the back of the trailer, killing him and the two children in the car.
In a similar incident in Gainesville, Florida, a driver in his 60s crashed into the rear of a parked truck at a rest stop. While it’s unclear why the driver was speeding in the parking lot and slammed into the trailer, both he and his passenger were killed when the Tesla slid nearly halfway underneath, crushing the car’s inhabitants.
While these incidents occurred outside the Sooner State, it’s clear safety measures to prevent these crashes are valuable to drivers here. A recent federal law will soon require underride guards for commercial trucks in Oklahoma and across the nation. Strengthening the installation and use guidelines for rear and side underride guards will go a long way toward saving more lives.
Underride Guards and Their Purpose
Large commercial trucks traveling on highways at high speed are a necessary part of the commerce system throughout Oklahoma. Unfortunately, they also carry the potential for horrific and deadly accidents, especially if a vehicle strikes the rear of the trailer or drifts underneath it from the adjacent lane. Underride guards for the side and rear of trailers are a required safety feature on big rigs but may not be strong enough to keep a car from sliding under the trailer.
Oklahoma does not have specific requirements for underride guards on commercial trucks but adheres to the federal guidelines for all states. A recent study shows these guards can reduce deaths but that the numbers of accidents are probably much greater than currently recorded.
The Federal “Stop Underrides Act”
In recent years, a bill entered the Senate with the purpose of reducing the number of preventable deaths and injuries caused by underride collisions. Known as the “Stop Underrides Act,” it notes that underride crashes are a public health and safety threat. The bill recommends the installation of rear, side, and front guards to reduce the hundreds of deaths that happen annually from these incidents.
The act mandates the Secretary of Transportation to issue a final ruling requiring the installation of rear, front, and side underride guards on all trailers meeting certain conditions of weight and undercarriage height. The bill also outlines performance specifications for guards, and how they must be tested to ensure they qualify.
Because truck transport is overseen by the federal government instead of state by state, trailer manufacturers will be required to comply with the new guidance. All trucks traveling in or through Oklahoma will need to have newly installed or upgraded underride guards.
Although the bill has not yet been signed into law, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a new rule in June 2022 requiring rear guards to be strong enough to protect passenger cars hitting the back of trailers at 35 mph. It also requires updates to side guards to prevent vehicles passing under a trailer for over 50% of the vehicle’s length or width.
Side Underride Guards – Life-Saving or Unnecessary?
The Stop Underrides Act emphasizes the need for installing side underride guards on all trucks. However, groups such as the American Trucking Association oppose the measure, saying side and front guard installation would be financially burdensome. They also claim the recommendation for these safety measures is not based on accurate data.
On the opposite side, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says the act and the new NHTSA ruling does not go far enough. They insist more must be done to protect drivers who may be injured or killed if they crash into a tractor-trailer.
Nonetheless, side guards are valuable in an accident where a car is forced under the side of a trailer on the highway. If a truck runs a red light at an intersection, side underride guards can reduce the risk of decapitation and other fatal injuries by stopping the car before it travels under the tractor-trailer. Front guards can potentially limit damage and injury to smaller vehicles if they are rear-ended by a truck.
Common Causes of Underride Truck Accidents
Underride accidents can happen on city streets but are most common on large, heavily-traveled highways. There are a number of reasons a vehicle may be forced under the back of a trailer.
Faulty, Damaged, or Missing Underride Guards
Truck drivers must inspect their vehicles regularly and should report issues with the guards for repair or replacement. Even short-haul trips carry the risk of a rear-end collision from a driver who fails to brake in time.
Whether on the part of the truck driver or a motorist who is following the truck, sudden or unnecessary braking can easily cause an underride crash. A truck driver who fails to notice and respond to a hazard or wreck in front of their truck puts anyone driving behind them at risk of injury or death from slamming into or under their trailer. Distracted drivers who are following a truck and fail to see it’s braking can collide with the trailer.
Insufficient Warning Measures When a Truck is Stopped on the Roadside
If a truck is pulled off the main road onto a shoulder and fails to use adequate cones, flares, or other indicators, an unwary driver could stray into the shoulder and under the rear of the vehicle. Distracted or sleepy drivers at night are especially at risk, as are those who have limited visibility during inclement weather.
Distracted driving is a constant risk for both truck drivers and other motorists, shortening response time and increasing the chance of deadly collisions. Even if a driver has their eyes on the road, inattentional blindness can set in from fatigue, emotional distress, or mental anguish. Drivers see but do not respond and fail to react in time to avoid a crash.
Defective or Broken Safety Measures
Broken or inoperative tail lights on a truck mean a driver following the truck may not get a sufficient warning the driver is applying the brakes. Anyone who has driven behind a vehicle without working brake lights knows how difficult it is to recognize the vehicle is stopping in time to avoid a wreck. With the added risk of a car riding underneath a trailer, the consequences can be significant.
Likewise, when the rear or side underride guards have missing or damaged reflective tape, drivers have less visual information at night for judging how close they are to the truck.