INDIANAPOLIS — Families urging the federal government to make changes to semi-trucks say they’re encouraged by the new infrastructure bill approved by Congress and signed into law on Monday.
They say the changes will prevent deaths on Indiana roadways when it comes to underride crashes — that’s when a car slides underneath a truck, which can often be a deadly collision.
Hundreds of people die from underride crashes every year in this country, and it’s a problem WRTV Investigates has been tracking since 2013.
Underride guards are required, but families and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety say many guards are not strong enough to prevent deadly underride crashes.
Marianne Karth was driving through Georgia with her children when a truck driver hit their car, spinning it backwards and underneath a semi-truck.
Karth's daughters AnnaLeah, 17, and Mary, 13, were both killed.
Ever since the 2013 crash, Karth has been on a crusade to push trailer manufacturers and the federal government for stronger underride protection on trucks.
"I survived because I didn't go under the truck, and AnnaLeah and Mary may have also survived,” Karth said. “So that's why I became a mom on a mission to make truck crashes more survivable for other families. So that's why it's so important.”
Karth has worked with federal lawmakers, experts, trucking groups and other families, and has also set up a Facebook page to draw more attention to the issue.
“It’s not about stopping crashes,” Karth said. “It’s about making truck crashes more survivable.”
Christina Hammack, of Jeffersonville, Indiana, lost her daughter, Erin, at the age of 22 on May 4, 2018, when a tractor-trailer on a wet highway went sideways over the top of Erin’s car.
"We got that call and our lives were just turned upside down,” Hammack said. “Once I found out how it happened, the horror ensued. It's left us a big hole."
Erin was one of the more than 200 people who die every year in underride crashes.
Crash tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show what a difference a stronger rear guard can make — it could mean the difference between life and death.
Bruce Enz, of Avon, studies underride crashes for his business, Injury Crash Analysis.
Enz explained underride crashes can sometimes be the result of distracted driving, but they can also be due to poor visibility, especially at night.
Most trucks do not have side guards, and they’re not required currently, which means a side underride crash can be deadly even at really low speeds.
"It misses the hood of the car, and it comes in somewhere between upper chest and top of the head and that's a very deadly area for impact,” said Enz. “You're going to have serious neck injury, brain injury, decapitation. The car is not designed to withstand these types of forces."
The new infrastructure bill approved by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden calls on regulators to conduct research on side underride guards.
Check out these crash tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that show the difference a side guard can make compared to no guard at all, or just a wind skirt.
The bill’s language also calls for upgrades to the federal regulation for rear underride guards.
It also calls for guards that can hold up in a 35 mph crash in a full overlap and 50 percent overlap configuration, which is when half of the car’s width overlaps the rear of the truck.
The law also requires underride guards to be added to the Commercial Motor Vehicle Annual Inspection list, which goes into effect next month, on Dec. 9, said Karth.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is encouraged by the infrastructure deal.
“Stronger rear underride guards, like those called for in this bill, save lives by giving vehicle safety systems, including crumple zones, airbags and safety belts, the chance to do their jobs in a crash with the back of a large truck,” said Joe Young, IIHS spokesperson in an email to WRTV.
The bill also calls for the establishment of an advisory committee on underride protection that would include stakeholders in the industry, engineers, safety advocates and families.
“Those things are encouraging,” Karth said.
WRTV Investigates reached out to the United States Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), who will implement the changes outlined in the bill.
“NHTSA is finalizing a rulemaking for rear underride guards on trailers and semi-trailers and plans to issue a final rule by January 2022,” the agency said in a statement to WRTV. “NHTSA is evaluating the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal to determine the impact on current and future rulemaking efforts.”
It’s not yet clear what will be in the new rule or when it will take effect, but it’s likely any new regulations will only apply to new semitrailers.
“The average life span of a trailer is around 15-20 years, so you have 15-20 years of old trailers that are around there if it's not going to include the old ones,” Enz said. “So, we will have a lot of deaths until they age out. The standards aren’t good enough.”
Of course, stronger guards cost money and can add weight to the vehicle.
Karth said the infrastructure deal is a good start when it comes to saving lives on the road.
“We are making progress and we are looking forward to when no one will have to die from a preventable underride,” Karth said.
Karth said the last time the federal government upgraded the standard for rear underride guard was 1996.
Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal into law on Monday.
Congressman Andre Carson, D-Indiana, told WRTV Investigates it will help save Hoosier lives.
"It's clear we need to do much more to prevent underride crashes, which have caused tragic loss of life here in Indiana and across America,” Carson said. “As a senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, this has been a longtime priority of mine.
"That's why I am incredibly pleased that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal contains provisions to better protect drivers from underride crashes. This is one of many ways that this landmark legislation will create transformative change."
WRTV Investigates also reached out to the Indiana Motor Truck Association.
“We will continue to follow the discussion surrounding side underride guards,” said IMTA Vice President Barbara Hunt Smithers. “We are confident that decisions will be made based on solutions that are data driven and prove to be effective in real world highway settings. We are also interested in learning more about the theory of the engineering of the guards and how it may impact operational issues around weight, strength, and effectiveness of the side guards in general.”
IMTA also supports the creation of an advisory committee to examine the underride issue.
The Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association emphasizes many companies are already voluntarily making stronger guards.
“TTMA stands ready to work with NHTSA when rulemaking begins as directed in the infrastructure Bill,” said Jeff Sims, TTMA president in an email to WRTV. “Many trailer manufacturers are already installing rear impact guards that exceed the current NHTSA standards and satisfy the IIHS test requirements that are the basis for the infrastructure Bill. NHTSA’s study of these and other types of impact is welcomed, and TTMA will continue to support the implementation of new requirements if NHTSA concludes they are justified and technologically feasible.”