The Danger of Underride Crashes and How Regulators Fail To Prevent Them

The Danger of Underride Crashes and How Regulators Fail To Prevent Them
In this article, we examine the dangers of underride crashes and how regulators have repeatedly failed to prevent them. Please be advised that our discussion will touch on sensitive topics including truck crash fatality and injuries of a violent nature.

“NHTSA has been trying, for decades, to do something about underride deaths. And yet over and over, they haven’t made the progress that we need. Why? Well, I think part of it is because industry just keeps pushing back and undermining their efforts.”

These are the words of David Friedman, former top administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a federal agency tasked with a mission to “save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes.”

Underride deaths can be stopped. But they haven’t been. We have to ask why. And more importantly, we have to ask what can we do to stop them.

Key Takeaways:

  • Underride crashes are one of the deadliest—and most underreported—types of truck accidents.
  • Underrides can be prevented with the right technology. An effective underride guard can stop cars from sliding under tractor-trailers.
  • After decades of failed and ineffective legislation, a new law to improve underride guard safety standards was passed last year. The trucking industry should be in compliance by 2024.
  • Analysts, attorneys, and researchers know the battle isn’t over yet. There are still many gaps in legislation, and the efficacy of the newly-passed statutes has yet to be proven.

We urge you to reach out to us at Trucking Injury Law Group if you were injured or a loved one lost their life in an underride crash. We are currently representing clients across all Western states.

We focus exclusively on large truck accident cases. It is our mission to increase awareness and strengthen legislation that can prevent deadly crashes. And we need your help. Across the country, personal injury advocates like us are striving to make the voices of victims heard. Each case we handle is an opportunity for us to prove to policymakers just how critical this issue is to public safety.

What Are Underride Crashes?

In the commercial trucking industry, the term “underride” refers to a specific type of crash. An underride is when a smaller car, light truck, or SUV slides under the body of the larger tractor-trailer, becoming trapped underneath. The smaller vehicle typically enters the space beneath the truck from the rear or, less commonly, the side.

The action of scraping beneath the trailer can crush, sever, or shear a car in half. This makes underrides one of the deadliest types of truck collisions. Car occupants are extremely likely to suffer fatal or catastrophic injuries.

Why Is an Underride Truck Accident So Dangerous?

The point of impact in an underride crash is typically the front windshield of the passenger vehicle. This throws the full thrust of the collision directly at occupants in the front seats. Injuries sustained in an underride crash, therefore, are likely to rank among the most gruesome and catastrophic.

Underride crashes can cause these and other injuries to passenger car occupants:

  • Vital organ laceration
  • Decapitation
  • Crushed ribs and lungs
  • Broken neck
  • Severed spinal cord
  • Penetrating injuries
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Face and body disfigurement

On the other hand, underrides rarely harm the truck driver. Sitting high in the cab at the other end of the truck 70 feet away, operators are usually completely protected from the impact. In many cases, the truck driver may feel a slight bump at most.

Oftentimes, a trucker is not even aware that an underride accident has occurred at all.

What Causes Underride Accidents?

Underrides typically result when there is not enough stopping distance between the truck and the following vehicle, or when the following vehicle does not see or react to the truck in front of it.

There are numerous causes of underride accidents, but many situations involve poor visibility. A high number of these crashes happen at night or under adverse weather conditions.

These are just a few of the factors that can influence the likelihood of an underride event:

  • Sudden braking by the truck driver
  • Rainy, snowy, foggy, or icy weather conditions
  • Damaged or inoperative tail lights on the truck
  • Improper truck stopping or parking (for example, on the side of an exit ramp without adequate warning cones, reflective triangles, and flares)
  • Risky truck turning, merging, or street crossing that can lead to a side underride
  • Tailgating or distracted driving by the following passenger car driver
  • Inadequate, missing, or dirty reflective tape on the back of the truck
  • Lack of underride guards, or the use of ineffective or outdated guards

How Often Do Underride Crashes Happen?

In 2021, the most recent year of reporting, NHTSA data showed that more than 400 people died in underride crashes. Between 2008 and 2017, an average of about 219 underride crash fatalities were reported each year in the United States.

But according to experts, these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has stated that underride accidents are likely highly underreported, making this annual average much lower than it should be. A 2013 study conducted by the Association for the Advancement of Automobile Medicine (AAAM) also found evidence to support the widespread underreporting of underrides, particularly the less common side-entry underride crashes.

Researchers identified three main reasons why underride crash data does not reflect the reality:

  1. State laws vary on how underride crashes are defined. (For example, some states require that the car’s hood be at least 50% under the truck’s trailer for the collision to be classified as an underride.)
  2. Not all states have a way to distinguish an underride from other types of rear-end or side-impact collisions on an accident report.
  3. State and local police are not always trained on how to correctly identify and report an underride truck crash.

In response to the findings, the GAO has recommended a two-part solution that involves a) more standardized definitions and reporting protocol for underride crashes, and b) increased education for police departments tasked with identifying and reporting underrides.

The History of Anti-Underride Regulations in the U.S.

Our country has been slower to adopt underride guard laws than many other areas of the world, including Japan, China, Canada, the U.K., and several South American countries.

In the timeline below, please note that the use of the term “underride guard” refers only to rear underride guards. There are currently no federal regulations mandating side or front underride guards in the United States.

Policymakers have proposed side guard regulations three times since 2017, but no law has passed. However, some local jurisdictions have enacted legislation requiring lateral protective devices, or side guards. Boston was the first U.S. city to pass such legislation. Portland, New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and a handful of other areas now have similar laws on the books.

Timeline of Rear Underride Regulations in the United States

  • 1953: The first underride guard laws went into effect, requiring rear underride guards no more than 30 inches from the ground, a specification soon found to be ineffective.
  • 1967: High-profile entertainer Jayne Mansfield died of head injuries suffered in an underride crash, prompting a public outcry and NHTSA recommendations for more effective underride guards, known at the time as Mansfield bars.
  • 1977: An Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) study demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the 1953 underride guard law forced a Senate hearing to examine the evidence. Law amendments were proposed but failed to pass.
  • 1996: Federal regulation 49 CFR § 571.223 – Standard No. 223 was passed, finally updating the underride guard standards set by the 1953 law.
  • 2022-2024: In 2022, the NHTSA issued updated standards for rear underride guards that went into effect in early 2023. Analysts anticipate full industry compliance by 2024. These updates focused on strength and energy absorption, with the goal of protecting the occupants of passenger cars impacting the rear of trailers. The safety revisions were made in response to the terms of the bipartisan statute H.R.3684 – Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law in 2021.

It’s impossible not to notice the decades of lag time between updates to laws known to be ineffective. Why has the U.S. been so slow to adopt safety standards that can save thousands of lives?

Nonprofit news agency ProPublica obtained thousands of government documents detailing underride crash research as part of a collaborative investigation with the FRONTLINE PBS series for the documentary “America’s Dangerous Trucks,” which aired in June of this year.

These documents, dating back to the 1960s, show a pattern in which lawmakers repeatedly “deferred to the wishes of the trucking industry,” according to research analysts.

As a multi-billion-dollar sector that effectively runs the modern American lifestyle coast to coast, the trucking industry is flanked by scads of lobbyists working to protect the financial interests of big businesses.

No matter how minor the cost of installing an underride bar may be, it still required motor carriers to take fleet vehicles out of commission, make repairs, submit to additional inspections, and invest in high-quality products that actually served the purpose as intended. It appeared that these concessions were ones the industry was not willing to make.

The interests of deep-pocketed corporations—combined with the prevalence of underreporting that made underride crash rates appear lower than they were—gave regulators plenty of excuses to continually place underride legislation on the back burner.

Are the Newly Updated Laws Enough To Prevent Underride Crashes?

Will the new laws prevent underride deaths? Time will tell.

We are hopeful that the updated standards, if met, will be successful in stopping cars from sliding beneath tractor-trailers from the rear. But we also know there is still much room for improvement.

The NHTSA, GAO, and other agencies have identified several areas in which we should continue to strive for improved safety standards:

  • Better reporting mechanisms to provide a clearer picture of the scope of the problem
  • More standardized definitions for underride crashes
  • Increased education for law enforcement agencies about the danger of underrides and how to identify them
  • Federal statutes requiring the use of side and front underride guards
  • Ensuring that new standards for rear guards are fully implemented
  • Improved inspections and oversight for commercial motor carriers
  • Enacting laws requiring single-unit trucks (like dump trucks) to install underride guards

A Safer Future for All Motorists

Personal injury lawyers, public safety advocates, trucking industry experts, investigative journalists, and federal watchdog agencies like the GAO are in agreement on the issue—we must do something to protect motorists from preventable underride deaths.

The recent enactment of new underride guard standards is a step in the right direction. Our efforts continue on the same path as we devote our work to protecting motorists from the harm that irresponsible trucking practices causes us all.

And when it comes to highway safety, we believe the government has a responsibility to side with us, not with the corporations that care more about profits than people.

Contact Trucking Injury Law Group if You Were Involved in an Underride Crash

Truck accidents are what we do. Fighting for the rights of truck crash victims and survivors is our passion, our mission, and our life’s work.

If you suffered injury or the death of a loved one due to trucking negligence, we are the law group best equipped to represent you. There is no cost to sit down for a free, confidential case evaluation with a truck crash attorney.

Contact us to begin the conversation today. Trucking Injury Law Group does not charge for legal consultations, and we take most cases on a contingency fee basis.