Preventing Death by Underride

On the one hand, installing comprehensive underride protection on every truck in this country will cost a lot of money. On the other hand, doing so will save a lot of lives and, furthermore, protect the trucking industry and taxpayers from the costly expense of underride tragedies.

I know this all too well after losing my two youngest daughters in a truck crash. On May 4, 2013, I started out in our Crown Vic with the youngest three of our nine children. Caleb (15) sat in the front seat with me, while AnnaLeah (17) and Mary (13) were in the back seat.

We were headed from our home in North Carolina to Texas where four of their siblings were set to graduate from college and their oldest sister, Rebekah, was getting married. While on I-20 in Georgia, we came upon a back-up from an earlier crash. We slowed down. However, a truck driver did not and hit us, sending our car into a spin so that we went backward into the rear of another tractor-trailer.

The rear underride guard – which is mandated by the federal government and supposed to stop cars from going under trucks – came off, allowing our car to go underneath the truck. AnnaLeah died instantly and Mary a few days later.

What we then learned was that hundreds of people die each year from underride – not to mention the countless catastrophic, life-changing injuries. Because these deaths are significantly under-reported, it is likely that the true count is much higher, perhaps in the thousands.

At the same time, we learned that research had been done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) – proving through rigorous crash testing that the guards produced by eight major trailer manufacturers, although designed to meet the current federal standard, were weak and ineffective. In real-life crashes, people were continuing to die from underride with no end in sight.

We soon discovered another problem. People also are dying in droves when their car rides under the sides of trucks. In this case, there is not even a federal side guard mandate despite the fact that in 1969, DOT said that they “intend to extend underride protection to the sides of large trucks.”

Our family took action in the following ways:

  1. We launched an online petition on March 19, 2014, and on May 5, one year after our crash, we delivered over 11,000 petitions to DOT – asking for side guards, front guards, stronger rear underride standards, and underride protection on Single Unit Trucks.
  2. We sent letters to trailer manufacturers asking them to voluntarily upgrade their standards and to transport companies asking them to make sure that they were buying safe trucks.
  3. We helped to organize an Underride Roundtable – bringing together diverse stakeholders, including engineers who have designed solutions.
  4. After our petition did not lead to a comprehensive underride protection mandate, we drafted a bill which, if passed as we have authored it, would require every truck to be equipped with technology to prevent the truck from entering the occupant space of passenger vehicles which collide with them (as well as pedestrians and cyclists from going under trucks).

The initial collision of the passenger vehicle is not normally the cause of truck crash fatalities; that would be the Second Collision of the truck with the bodies of car occupants, which leads to Death By Underride. Why then, despite available technology, has comprehensive underride protection not been implemented previously? Simply put, because the trucking industry has resisted it due to cost.

Through relentless action to enlighten Congressional Offices, our family, along with Lois Durso – who lost her 26 year-old daughter, Roya Sadigh, in 2004 due to a side underride crash – has begun to generate Congressional interest in taking action to introduce the Roya, AnnaLeah & Mary Comprehensive Underride Protection Act of 2017 (RAMCUP). Getting it passed will take a major miracle due to opposition from the trucking industry, but we are promoting several ways of reducing the trucking industry’s expense to implement the measure.

Once this bill is passed, we will continue to advocate for Vision Zero Rulemaking. We have observed that the cost/benefit analysis, required in rulemaking by Executive Order 12866, all-too-often ends in the conclusion that mandating a safety countermeasures would not be “cost effective,” i.e., would cost too much to implement for each life saved. Despite DOT’s Value of a Statistical Life (presently $9.6 million), over and over throughout the decades, the supposed costs of implementation have been said to outweigh the benefit of lives saved, so that the cost/life saved exceeds the VSL.

We are not alone in our thinking that the costs are overstated and the benefits are underreported. In addition, we are not so sure that DOT’s formula appropriately utilizes a cost effectiveness approach as recommended by the Office of Management & Budget. To address that issue, we launched a Vision Zero Petition in 2016 – signed by over 20,000 people – and drafted a Vision Zero Executive Order, to address this unthinkable process which does not assign a value to this safety solution commensurate with the worth of human life.

Thus far, neither the Democratic Obama administration nor the Republican Trump administration have seen fit to address this as a National Public Health Problem. They have not set a National Vision Zero Goal nor established a National Vision Zero Task Force. They have not appointed a National Traffic Safety Ombudsman to be a vigilant voice for vulnerable victims of vehicle violence.

Our experience with a system which leaves unsuspecting travelers at risk of horrific but preventable life-threatening injuries has spurred us to raise hard questions:

  1. If it is possible to install readily available technology which will prevent the loss of life, is it unethical not to do so?
  2. Who should pay for the installation of safety technology?
  3. Is Vision Zero Rulemaking the right thing to do?

 

Marianne Karth is a traffic safety advocate.

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