Rulemaking by reason and emotion

July 1, 2014
Trailer/Body Builders July 2014 editorial

THE HIGHWAY can be an unforgiving place, the scene of tragedies that can break hearts and end lives.

Such was the case on Interstate 20 in May 2013. According to local news reports, an automobile driver lost control of his vehicle on the rain-slick highway, crossed the median, and crashed into an oncoming truck.

But that specific incident was merely the first fatal crash on that stretch of highway that day. A couple of hours later, with the accident scene still being investigated, the road still slick, and traffic at a halt, two sisters were killed and their mother injured when a their vehicle was struck from behind by a truck that could not stop in time.

When a tragedy like that occurs, the natural response is to reach out and demand that something be done. The mother of the two girls—who was the driver at the time of the accident—has been very effective in requesting specific action from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

NHTSA announced July 10 that, in response to petition for rulemaking submitted by Marianne Karth and the Truck Safety Coalition, it would initiate rulemaking on a portion of the requests—to develop more stringent requirements for trailer underride guards as well as to require underride guards on straight trucks. (See story, Page 18 for details).

Rear underride is nothing new for the trailer industry. Detailed studies have been performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, and others. And, of course, the engineering departments of trailer manufacturing companies have spent countless hours designing guards that will function in the real world of trailer operation.

Much of that body of work undoubtedly will be referenced when NHTSA announces its proposed rulemaking for straight trucks. That will be a separate rulemaking from the expected changes to trailer underride guard requirements.

But the petition stemming from these accidents did not stop there. The vehicles in these accidents were struck from multiple angles. The Karth car was hit from the rear and driven into the truck in front of it.

The petition to which NHTSA responded is requesting special protective devices to surround the truck and trailer. Beefed up rear guards, guards to prevent cars from running under the side of the trailer, and something to keep the front of the truck from overrunning passenger cars were all part of the request.

So what is an override guard? What does it look like? Front override guards are not required in North America, and a veteran accident investigator that we know had never heard of the term.

According to Robert Mazurowski, Office of Crashworthiness Standards for NHTSA, override guards are used in other countries. They essentially are low-mounted, flat bumpers mounted on the front of trucks. The flat surface, combined with a low mounting height, is designed to prevent the bigger vehicle from running over the smaller one.

According to the notice in The Federal Register, NHTSA is “still evaluating the petitioners’ request to improve side guards and front override guards and will issue a separate decision on those aspects of the petition at a later date.”

It’s easy in the aftermath of a tragedy such as this to focus on the truck. It’s there, it’s highly visible, and it’s the biggest vehicle there.

Less noticed were the true causes of this tragedy—road surfaces that do not provide adequate traction when wet and drivers who do not respond to the slick highway.

In a perfect world, we find the ideal road surface material that offers traction in all types of weather. In a perfect world, our roads are used by drivers who are totally aware of the conditions around them. Or maybe we all just scoot over and let Google drive.

Until then, regulatory agencies, research groups, and private sector engineers will continue to apply sound engineering principles in order to make the safest roads and motor vehicles possible. The emotion associated with highway tragedies such as this one will continue to remind us why. ♦

About the Author

Bruce Sauer | Editor

Bruce Sauer has been writing about the truck trailer, truck body and truck equipment industries since joining Trailer/Body Builders as an associate editor in 1974. During his career at Trailer/Body Builders, he has served as the magazine's managing editor and executive editor before being named editor of the magazine in 1999. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin.