Thirty miles out of Houston, on the edge of a small town surrounded by pastures and farmland, three highways fan out. One goes southwest to Mexico. A second is the old federal highway that was partially paved over to build Interstate 10. The third is a state highway that goes northwest for hundreds of miles without ever reaching a major city.
The highways were poorly marked. If you didn’t know where you were going, you could easily get that sinking feeling that you no longer are going where you thought you were.
That was the case decades ago when a lone truck driver realized he was on the wrong highway. Late at night and with no cars in sight, he decided he could use the oncoming lane, the drainage ditch, and part of a cotton field to turn his rig around. You can guess the rest.
The reporter for the local newspaper, fresh out of journalism school, was assigned to get interviews and take photographs of the accident. The bodies of the five occupants of the passenger car had already been removed by the time he got there, but the highway patrolman was still investigating the accident scene. And the truck driver was still there, devastated.
Newspaper reporters tended to practice a different form of journalism back then. The story of that fatal accident made the front page of the next day’s edition. The reporter only wrote the facts about what happened. He had some questions, but his opinions had no place on the front page.
Even 45 years later, some of the questions raised by that event still remain. Why weren’t there adequate signs that readily identified each of those highways? How could a professional truck driver even think about doing a U-turn on a dark, narrow highway, regardless of how far he would have to drive to reach a safe place where he could safely turn around?
How could a young father with his entire family in the car react so slowly? Was he distracted? If so, he was distracted for a long time. The highway was straight and level, and the tractor and trailer was sitting there all the way across the road. The bright white van trailer had to have been visible as far as his headlights could reach. How could he not have seen it until it was too late?
A lot has changed since then. A modern interstate bypasses the entire town now—and the poorly marked intersection. Airbags and much improved seat belts are among the myriad safety features that protect automobile passengers today. Conspicuity tape, now mandatory, would have made the trailer even more obvious and easily avoided.
Yet people still die on the highway, primarily in accidents caused by driver error. So what can manufacturers do to protect us from ourselves? And what should they do? The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has a new challenge for trailer manufacturers—keeping automobiles from running under trailers. (See story in this month's issue, Guarding against side underride).
IIHS and the trailer industry in recent years have cooperated to develop rear underride guards that greatly exceed Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. But this new push for side underride guards is a much greater challenge.
• Unlike the rear underride guard program, there are no regulations, no defined standard to target or exceed.
• A guard would have to protect a much greater area of the trailer—the lengths of both sides. Presumably, this would add significantly more weight to the trailer.
• Also presumably, the guard would increase the cost of a new trailer, reduce payload, and increase maintenance.
• Would fleets buy a side guard voluntarily?
• What are the product liability implications if some trailers have safety equipment and others don’t?
IIHS says that 301 people died in 2015 when their vehicle struck the side of a tractor-trailer. By contrast, 292 died from striking the rear of a trailer. No one knows for sure how many of those fatalities were the result of side underride. For example, the accident described earlier was the ideal scenario for a side underride accident. The tractor-trailer blocked both lanes of a federal highway—exposing the entire rig to a potential side underride collision. Yet the car did not underride the trailer because it struck the tractor tandem.
The ultimate hope we have for safe highways is replacing drivers with self-driving vehicles. Until then (and probably even afterward), people will still crash into trailers. What should this industry be doing now to minimize the consequences? ♦