Every year, hundreds of people are killed when they run into the back of a semi-truck trailer. The hood on most passenger cars is low enough to slide under the trailer so that the force of the impact goes directly into the windshield and the passenger compartment.
These types of crashes are known as underride accidents. We've seen them first hand on Bay Area roadways and they are often gruesome and deadly, like the accident that killed 39-year-old Darcia Domiguez back in February of 2010.
Domiguez drove her Mini Cooper into the back of tractor-trailer which had broken down on the inside lane of the Veterans Expressway. Crash photos show the truck had several reflective cones behind it to warn drivers, but FHP says Dominguez did not slow down to avoid a collision and her car slid underneath the trailer.
FHP concluded the truck driver did nothing wrong.
To protect drivers, semi trailers have a rear underride guard which extends downward from the very back of the trailer, which is supposed to act like a bumper to stop the grill area and hood of the car from sliding underneath the back of the trailer.
In accident that killed Dominguez, it didn't work -- even though it was up to the current standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
That comes as no surprise to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A recent study from IIHS indicates that guards which meet current standards in many cases are not strong enough to prevent cars from sliding under the semi even at moderate speeds.
"Underride guards are meant to keep the vehicles that strike the truck from going underneath, but they're not doing that," says Adrian Lund, president of the IIHS. "These are horrendous crashes and they happen at speeds where we know we can protect people."
IIHS believes the federal government needs to act now and impose new standards for underride guards, similar to what is now in place in Canada and Europe.
For the test, the IIHS crashed a 2010 Chevrolet Malibu into the back of a stationary semi trailer that was fitted with the rear impact guard. The car pushed right through the guard and the trailer came crashing through the windshield.
Lund says each year there are more than 400 deaths where cars strike the back of a truck, and half are underride accidents.
"There's no reason for people to die in these crashes."
But NHTSA has been slow to act, says Lund. FOX 13 contacted NHTSA and the agency issued this statement:
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is well aware of the scope and severity of the truck underride issue, and first identified the need to strengthen underride performance in rear corner impact crashes in 2009. Since then, we have been conducting an in-depth field analysis to determine how we can improve that standard to save lives. The driving public should know that we are already actively working to address the issues raised in IIHS's report and that their safety will always be our top priority.
Jeff Armstrong, a Bay Area forensic engineer specializing in accident reconstruction, supports the call for change.
"When you think about cars, we see improvements every year, and new safety standards come out every year for automobiles. The standard for underride guards has not changed since the mid 90's so it's due for an update," he said.
In the meantime, all that law enforcement can do is enforce what's now on the books.
"Remember, there's nothing supporting that underride. As you will see when we stop one, it's just hanging under there. The metal is weak," said Sgt. Pat Edwards, who works for FHP in commercial vehicle enforcement.
Even though the underrides meet current standards, he sees them fail. What does he think about the trucking companies which own the trailers?
"They'll do what they have to do, the bare minimum, to get by to meet regulations."
FOX 13 contacted the American Truckers Association and Press Secretary Sean McNally sent us this statement, which says, in part:
The results of this study are concerning, and ATA and its members will be taking a very close look at IIHS's recommendations. ATA's members are always interested in finding ways to improve highway safety, but as we continue to digest IIHS's findings, we won't be taking a formal position on their recommendation. Since the study was published, a number of leading trailer manufacturers have told us that for the most part, they are building their new trailers to the Canadian standard already.
LINK: Read full statement
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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