Driving behind a fully loaded 80,000 pound semi-truck can be nerve racking for anyone. One Prince George's County woman has seen what can happen.
"I try to be very cautious myself," Marilyn Bland says.
In 2002, as she and her boss, Councilmember Isaac Gourdine, were driving on the highway when they were hit by a car from behind. Suddenly they careened toward a semi-truck stopped on the shoulder. The brakes couldn't stop them in time.
In that moment Marilynn Bland came close to dying.
"I guess at that particular moment, I thought I was gone too," she remembers. "I can still see we were just having a conversation, and then the next thing we know, it was forced up under the truck, but it went at an angle."
"No reason for people to die..."
Gourdine, who was driving the car, died. Every year, more than 400 people are killed the same way, in rear-end collisions with large trucks. In about half of those, like Bland and Gourdine's crash, the car slides underneath the truck. It is known as an underride accident.
"There's no reason for people to die in these crashes," says Adrian Lund, President of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
The truck in Bland's accident had what is called an underride guard. The bar that hangs across the back tailgate of the tractor trailer has been required by the federal government on most large trucks since 1998. It is intended to stop cars from going under in a rear-end accident.
More than a decade later, as Bland's crash shows, people are still dying.
"In many cases, we see that the speed wasn't that high. It's just that the underride guard breaks away," Lund explains. "And once that guard breaks away, there is nothing to stop that car from going underneath."
IIHS last year conducted a series of crash tests on a number of underride guards. All of them met U.S. safety standards, but the tests found they weren't doing the job. In half the tests, the guard failed at speeds as low as 35 miles per hour.
"If it's giving way, that says it's defective, that it's not doing what it's supposed to do, and that's the whole purpose for having the guard, is the protection because accidents will happen," says Bland with frustration.
"It's not rocket science..."
Based on the crash tests, the problem isn't the strength of the bar itself, but the attachments which sometimes break off or the ends which give way if a car strikes the corner at an angle. IIHS argues it is a problem the government can fix.
"It's not rocket science, and it's not cost prohibitive, and when you look at the design of the underride guard, you are just talking about putting some strength out at the ends," Lund says.
Federal regulators have been aware of these weaknesses since 2009. In a statement, the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration says, "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."
That is three years working on this problem and the U.S. standard hasn't changed, even though Europe and Canada have adopted stronger safety standards.
"It concerns me people are dying on the highways in any kind of an accident," says Bill Graves, President of the American Trucking Associations (ATA).
ATA believes it is possible to make U.S. standards better, although no standard will be foolproof. It stopped short of calling on the federal government to make changes and instead said it supports NHTSA's efforts.
"It's going to be a challenge. NHTSA is working on that and we'll adhere to whatever they come up with," Graves says.
"A responsibility to step up..."
After its crash tests last year, IIHS sent a letter to federal regulators along with the results of its testing, urging NHTSA to upgrade the standard for underride guards.
Now the institute is conducting a new round of tests on the top ten manufacturers of tractor trailers to see which ones hold up best in rear end crashes. The results are expected early next year.
Given the federal government's failure to act, Marilyn Bland has her own message for NHTSA.
"I would say to them, 'You have a responsibility to step up your standard and to stay on top of this until the accidents start going down or the deaths start going down,"' she says.
If stronger U.S. standards had been in place at the time of her accident, Bland believes things might have turned out differently. Anything less now she says is unacceptable.
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