NHTSA’s Advisory Panel on Underride Protection Raises Topics
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A committee launched by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to study side underride protection in trucking during its inaugural meeting raised a variety of topic areas to address, an indication that the group’s 16 members bring to the table varied ideas about where to focus attention.
During the May 25 virtual meeting of the agency’s Advisory Committee on Underride Protection, committee members offered long introductions and suggested topics for discussion at future meetings that they believe could inform whether to require heavy trucks to install side underride guards.
“The purpose of the committee is to provide information, advise and give recommendations to the secretary of transportation on safety regulations to reduce underride crashes and fatalities,” Ann Carlson, NHTSA’s chief counsel, told the group. “The committee acts solely in its advisory capacity. You don’t have authority beyond that to actually mandate regulations or law. But your advice is obviously extraordinarily important.”
The Biden administration in April issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking seeking public comments on the controversial side underride issue, a response to a provision in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law directing such action. The provision requires Secretary Pete Buttigieg to conduct additional research to better understand side guards’ overall effectiveness and “assess the feasibility, benefits, costs and other impacts of installing side underride guards on trailers and semitrailers.” Currently, there are no regulations requiring large trucks to install side underride guards.
Side underride crashes are generally defined as those in which the front end of a vehicle impacts a generally larger vehicle and slides under the chassis of the impacted vehicle. NHTSA estimated that there are annually 89 light-vehicle-occupant fatalities and 409 serious injuries in two-vehicle crashes with tractor-trailers where a light passenger vehicle strikes the side of a tractor-trailer and slides underneath it.
Committee membership includes representatives from American Trucking Associations, trailer manufacturers Utility Manufacturing Co. and Wabash, component-manufacturer Hendrickson USA, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Also included are an owner-operator, two insurance industry executives, two accident reconstruction experts, safety groups speaking on behalf of loved ones killed in crashes with trucks, and researchers with expertise on the effectiveness and limitations of side and rear underride guards. The committee voted Adrienne Gildea, deputy executive director at the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, as its chair.
ATA’s representative on the panel advanced the federation’s belief that focusing on safe operations is the key to preventing side underride crashes. “Our general stance on this is to look at preventing the crash from happening in the first place, versus mitigation after the fact,” said ATA Vice President of Safety Policy Dan Horvath. “Our fleet members are spending $10 billion annually on safety investments.”
Matthew Brumbelow, a committee member and an engineer who has conducted research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said the first topic of discussion for the group should be the ANPRM on side underride guards.
“I think that’s the cutting edge of where this issue lies right now,” Brumbelow said. “One of the first things the committee should take on right now is to unpack everything that went into NHTSA’s cost-benefit analysis to get feedback.”
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Safety advocate Marianne Karth wants the group to expand its focus to “things that involve rear guards, side guards and front underride guards, while fellow safety advocate Jennifer Tierney stressed the importance of “this issue [of] conspicuity — reflective tape, not just underride guards.” She said, “I think that we should be looking at everything we could possibly do to prevent these horrific crashes.”
“It’s very obvious there’s a lot of wisdom in this group,” added Lee Jackson, a former police officer and accident investigator who now serves as an accident crash reconstruction expert. “Already we’re kind of bouncing around, and I just want to say that we really have to know the topic in advance and really stay on topic. Otherwise we’re not going to get anything accomplished.”