A truck design change that could save lives costs about $100. It has yet to be adopted by regulators and that says a lot about the state of safety on U.S. highways.
The design fix by trailer maker Manac (MA) Inc., one of several under consideration, is simple: Wider spacing of support bars that hang from the end of truck trailers to prevent cars from sliding underneath. Marianne Karth says it might have saved the lives of her two teenage daughters, AnnaLeah and Mary, who died in a 2013 crash. Karth was driving a blue Crown Victoria that was hit by one tractor trailer and slid under another truck, despite its steel bar.
Since recovering from her own injuries, Karth has devoted her life to prodding regulators for tougher standards on the bars, called underride guards, and for requiring them on more trucks. And she has managed to succeed where other safety advocates and insurance industry researchers have failed over the last two decades, convincing regulators to begin a formal review of existing safety regulations.
“It is frustrating when the data aren’t enough, but let’s face it, they frequently aren’t enough,” said Adrian Lund, president of the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “You need something to motivate the wheels of government to move. Marianne Karth did that.”
While Karth, 59, is no engineering expert, she says she is motivated by the loss of her daughters and the thousands of others who, like them, have needlessly died over the decades in underride accidents.
“You’ve got all the people it affects: parents, children, family, friends,” said Karth. “Just imagine all those people whose lives are forever changed, and it keeps adding up year after year after year.”
The passion that Karth brings to the debate won’t necessarily solve the problem, said Sean McNally, a spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, the industry’s largest advocacy group. Instead, regulators will be more effective if they focus on such measures as crash-avoidance technology and such simple steps as education to encourage better driving by both trucks and cars.
“All crashes are tragic, and as a result discussions about highway safety are often touched by strong emotions,” McNally said. “However, we should not use emotions as the basis for regulations. Regulations need to be grounded on strong research, science and data.”
Two Steel Bars
An underride guard isn’t complex. It typically consists of two vertical steel bars extending down from the truck frame and supporting a horizontal bar that’s as wide as the truck and nearly two feet above the road. The device has been required in some form on most tractor-trailers since 1953. Because trucks sit higher on the road than cars, they catch cars before they can slide under a truck in a collision, enabling air bags, crumple zones, and seat belts to save passengers.
When the bars work, people can walk away. When they fail, the results can be horrific. Such crashes claim about 400 deaths from cars hitting the back of trucks and about 125 with underride severe enough for the guards to intrude into the passenger compartments, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The crash impact often shears off the tops of cars, crushing and decapitating victims. Those who survive can be left with traumatic brain injuries or paralysis.
The last time the problem got national attention was in 1967, when actress Jayne Mansfield and two others died in a Buick Electra that slid under a tractor trailer. Three of her children sitting in the back survived the crash, including 3-year-old Mariska Hargitay, who now plays detective Olivia Benson in the TV series “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
After the publicity surrounding Mansfield’s death, regulators said they would strengthen the standards. Proposals crept along, then stalled. New regulations finally came in 1996, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revised standards on the size of guards and their strength. NHTSA lowered the maximum guard-to-ground distance to 22 inches, starting in 1998. Regulators also required reflective tape on trucks. Yet people continued to die in underride accidents.
“The federal government has been trying to do something about this issue at different levels for well over 60 years,” said David Friedman, NHTSA’s deputy administrator and top official. “We need to do more. We can do more. But there’s a lot of work that has to go into strengthening those standards.”
The Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association, a group representing trailer makers, is waiting for the regulatory process to unfold.
“The industry is already self-regulating, in that they have exceeded U.S. regulations,” said Jeff Sims, president of the group. “Where requested, we are cooperating.”
Lund’s organization, the insurance institute, measures the crashworthiness of vehicles. It petitioned U.S. regulators for change in 2011 after testing bars on trailers built by three companies to federal standards. Cars with crash-test dummies slammed into the bars, which buckled or broke in several tests. The trailers often broke through the windshields. Regulators at NHTSA didn’t respond to IIHS or comment publicly.
The institute, which has studied underride crashes for decades, ran more tests in March 2013 on guards made by eight companies that met U.S. standards and tougher Canadian guidelines. While the steel bars performed better than those in 2011, seven failed when cars hit their outside edge. Only Manac of Saint-Georges, Quebec, passed all the tests.
Died at the Scene
Two months later, Karth was driving with three of her nine children from their home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to Arlington, Texas. They were on their way to visit four of Karth’s older children, two of whom were receiving undergraduate degrees in Texas, and two who were getting master’s degrees.
As they drove through Georgia, a tractor trailer hit their car from behind, spun it around, and pushed it, rear-end first, under another truck’s trailer. The bars failed to prevent the sedan from sliding under the trailer.
AnnaLeah, 17, died at the scene. Mary, 13, was admitted to a hospital as Jane Doe, while her mother spent a week in a separate hospital about 100 miles away with a concussion, a broken rib and a collapsed lung. Mary died three days later. Karth’s 15-year-old son wasn’t seriously injured.
The driver of the truck that hit the Karths’ car, Kishigsaikhan Dorj, a 46-year-old California resident, was pulling a trailer stacked with cars when he tried to change lanes, according to a police report by the Georgia Department of Public Safety. Dorj pleaded guilty on Oct. 20 to failure to maintain a lane and to two counts of homicide by a vehicle, all misdemeanors. He was sentenced to two years of probation.
“This truly is an accident that unfortunately resulted in the death of two people,” said his attorney, Noah Pines. “My client had no intent to cause harm to anybody.”
After returning home from the hospital, Karth was bereft. Reminders of her daughters were everywhere. Karth, who home-schooled her children, found her girls’ rooms as they had left them: stuffed animals, a collection of dolls, and a monkey rug.
Within weeks of the crash, Karth and her husband of 37 years, Jerry, 60, joined the Truck Safety Coalition, a group of activists who lost loved ones in crashes. The Karths dove deeply into truck-safety data, studying tests like the insurance institute’s crash results. They wanted to channel their emotional energy and honor the memory of their lost children by securing changes from trucking firms and rule makers.
Regulators and the industry are working to find solutions to reduce the 4,000 deaths a year from truck accidents. While high-tech solutions like mandatory electronic recorders and collision avoidance technology have drawn attention, the low-tech question of improving underride guards has gotten less notice.
Marianne Karth has tried to change that with the help of Facebook and YouTube. Since her daughters’ death, she has posted photos, safety research and countless wrenching homemade videos with titles like “AnnaLeah’s Journey Home: The best is yet to come.”
That four-minute video opens with shots from a camera mounted on the dashboard of the Georgia State Patrol officer driving to the Karths’ crash as a 911 dispatcher speaks. A montage of photos of AnnaLeah follows: as a baby, a toddler, a girl on a see-saw, with a book. Then, a photo of AnnaLeah smiling from the Crown Victoria in which she would die followed by shots of the shattered car. A siren wails for two minutes in the background until AnnaLeah’s stuffed lamb plays “Jesus Loves Me” and more photos spin by, ending with a gravestone.
Roughly edited and sentimental, the videos helped Karth formulate her views for speaking in front of groups of other victims, regulators and politicians.
“It has seemed all along that our story touches people,” Karth said. “AnnaLeah and Mary were innocent victims. They were just sitting in the back seat.”
In August 2013, Karth visited U.S. Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, in Washington. The next month, she joined Truck Safety Coalition members in a meeting with Transportation SecretaryAnthony Foxx.
Brian Farber, a spokesman for Foxx, praised Karth and her family as “brave advocates for improving large truck safety.”
At the meeting, family members of other victims spoke out. Jennifer Tierney, of Kernersville, North Carolina, told how her father died in a side underride crash in 1983. Tierney still remembers hearing about the excruciating details, including how the roof and windshield of his pickup peeled back “like a banana,” ending up in the cargo bed.
“It’s a very, very violent way to lose somebody you care about,” Tierney said. “It hurts more when you find out it’s preventable.”
Side underride guards, which may have saved Tierney’s father, are not required.
Then Karth described the death of her girls and pointed out the long slog by other victims through the regulatory maze. Everyone in the room froze, said Tierney.
“You could hardly breathe, it was so intense,” Tierney said. “She said why? Why? And she pointed to me, why all these years, her Dad died, and she’s been here trying. And all these other people trying to get the right thing done, and you didn’t do it. And my children are dead. There were a lot of people in there really working hard to keep their emotions intact.”
Foxx promised tangible progress in a short period of time.
Karth poured herself into a website dedicated to AnnaLeah and Mary. On the site, she described finding a letter that Mary wrote a month before the accident and that she intended to read 10 years later. Mary said she wanted to be famous someday and live each day as if it were her last.
“I hope that by raising awareness and bringing the story of AnnaLeah and Mary to peoples’ attention, that that will make a difference and she’ll get her wish,” Karth said.
Karth and her husband, Jerry, a computer systems manager, spent last winter organizing a letter-writing campaign to Foxx. Marianne, who has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan, had been a patient advocate for nursing home residents before raising her children full-time.
Orange, Purple Envelopes
On their wedding anniversary, March 19, they started an online petition drive, and they planned a protest for May 4, the first anniversary of the crash.
The petitions called for Foxx to improve rear underride guards, and start the process of requiring side and front guards. They also urged Foxx to raise minimum insurance liability limits for truckers and take steps to reduce trucker fatigue, including requiring electronic logging devices in all trucks.
The family boxed up printed copies of the petition for every one of the 11,000 people who signed online. They put 500 in orange envelopes and 500 in purple envelopes, the two favorite colors of AnnaLeah and Mary. The boxes were carted into a May 2014 meeting with Friedman, the NHTSA deputy director.
“IIHS has told us that it’s safer to run into a brick wall than the back of a truck,” Karth said later. “That says to me if it had been more rigid, then our car would have had a greater chance of the crush zone working and the car not riding under the truck.’
At the meeting, Karth cited studies by the insurance institute. She referred back to the March 2013 IIHS study, which measured how guards performed when hit by a car head-on, with 50 percent of the car hitting the bar, and with only 30 percent of the car hitting the guard.
All of the companies failed in the 30 percent test except Manac. Chief Executive Officer Charles Dutil said Manac puts its guards’ two vertical supports for the horizontal bar 18 inches from the outside of its trailers, or closer to the edges than its competitors.
‘‘Anyone in the industry can look at it and use a measuring tape,” Dutil said. “It ain’t rocket science.”
The improvements wouldn’t cost more than $100 per trailer, Dutil estimates. For large fleets, that could quickly add up.
The cost should be borne by the entire trucking industry and by consumers, Dutil said.
“It’s unfair to say if the trailer manufacturers were to spend a few extra dollars we would save lives,” he said.
Making stronger underride guards may be simpler than high-tech safety gear like computer-assisted braking or electronic stability control, but changing a federal regulation is never easy, Friedman said.
“There’s a lot of work that has to go into it,” Friedman said. “How are you going to make sure what you’re doing doesn’t have unintended consequences, so you don’t end up doing more harm than good?”
Engineers make a trade-off between guards that are stiff enough to keep cars from sliding underneath during crashes and those that are so rigid they’ll cause deceleration forces that can also be deadly, said Sims, the president of the manufacturers’ association.
“You can always look at a single crash and say that crash might have been prevented with a different design,” said Sims. “Our concern is making the whole population as safe as it can be. You may have to acknowledge you’ll be helping in some crashes, but in others you won’t survive as well.”
Not all truck companies agree that Manac’s design is an improvement over existing guards. Great Dane, which built the trailer that the Karth car hit, said it’s working on an improved design. A solution is “ultimately possible, but implementing such a change is complicated,” Great Dane said in a statement.
Karth and the Truck Safety Coalition’s advocacy appears to be finally paying off. NHTSA granted a petition in July for new truck regulations, promising to rewrite the rules on underride guards for tractor trailers.
The agency plans to have a proposal on better trailer guards by the middle of 2015, Friedman said. Early next year, it’s expecting to take a first step that could lead to standards for single-unit trucks. That process will take longer because less is known about that type of crash, he said.
“What that family is doing is real inspiration,” Friedman said. “It’s incredibly important to meet with people like the Karths to better understand the real impacts.”
For survivors of victims like Tierney, Karth’s victory came as vindication for the decades they have fought for changes.
“I haven’t had a birthday, a Christmas, a Father’s Day, an Easter, a dinner, a meal, a conversation with my Dad for over 30 years,” Tierney said. “And the best way to honor him and his memory is to do this, because it’s all I’ve got.”
As the holidays approached, Karth sat down to resume the tradition of the family’s annual Christmas letter for the first time since before crash. In her last letter two years ago, Karth noted AnnaLeah was getting ready to graduate from high school and Mary was pushing her parents to get a dog.
“We send it out to over 100 people,” Karth said. “It’s really painful to be sending it out with no news about AnnaLeah and Mary. They’ll forever be 17 and 13.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rick Schine at firstname.lastname@example.org Steve Geimann