Improved Truck Trailers Still Capable of Killing Drivers

Heavy-duty truck trailers fall short in preventing gruesome head injuries that kill hundreds of car drivers each year in rear-end collisions, according to a safety group’s study.

Seven of eight trailers failed a toughened crash test designed to simulate what happens when a car catches a trailer at a glancing blow, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said in a report released today. Trucks are required in the U.S. and Canada to have guards underneath trailers to prevent cars from sliding underneath them during a collision.

“When the guards failed, head and neck injury measures were so high that real drivers would have died,” the insurance institute, based in Arlington, Virginia, said.

The group petitioned the U.S. Transportation Department to tighten regulations for the trailers two years ago.

All eight companies’ trailers passed an easier crash test, simulating a straight-on car-truck crash. Manac Inc., based in Saint-Georges, Quebec, had a design strong enough to pass all three of the industry-funded institute’s crash tests, the only one of eight companies tested to do so.

Trailers made by Hyundai Translead Inc., a subsidiary of Seoul-based Hyundai Motor Co., Wabash National Corp., Great Dane Trailers Inc., Stoughton Trailers Inc., Strick Corp., Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co. and Vanguard National Trailer Corp., showed potentially fatal injuries to crash-test dummies. These included heads striking the trucks directly when a corner of a car was run into the edge of a trailer.

Marked Improvement

The trucking industry is encouraged that the trailers improved in two of the insurance institute’s tests, said Sean McNally, spokesman for the Arlington, Virginia-based American Trucking Associations. Collision-avoidance technology in cars and trucks may do even more, he said.

“Highway safety for both the motoring public and our drivers is our first priority,” McNally said. “Underride guards designed to save lives of automobile occupants must do exactly that, save lives.”

Still, the best way to prevent car-truck fatalities is to educate the public about how to share the road with trucks, he said. Three-fourths of those deaths are “unintentionally initiated or caused by the driver of the car,” he said.

Canadian Regulations

Canada toughened its regulations to make the guards stronger, and manufacturers have re-engineered their trailers in response, the institute said. Manac’s improved design, involving spreading the guard supports further apart, added about $20 to the trailer’s cost, the institute said.

“Our tests suggest that meeting the stronger Canadian standard is a good first step,” said David Zuby, the institute’s chief research officer. “Manac shows it’s possible to go much further.”

Dummies weren’t decapitated in the latest round of tests, unlike in 2011, when beheadings occurred in three of six tests the institute conducted.

In 2011, 260 of 2,241 car passengers killed in large truck crashes died after the fronts of their vehicles struck the back of a trailer, the insurance institute said. An 2011 insurance industry study of 115 car-truck crashes found about four-fifths involved so-called underride. The cars with the most underride accounted for 23 of the 28 fatal crashes in the study.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2009 identified its car-truck underride regulations, adopted in 1996 and 1998, as ones that needed improvement, the agency said at the time. An agency review of the regulations was scheduled to be completed in 2012.

Malibu Test

The institute’s tests were performed with the Chevrolet Malibu sedan, made by General Motors Co. The Malibu was selected for crash-test performances that earned it five-star ratings from NHTSA and a “top safety pick” from the insurance institute.

The Malibu was used to show that even vehicles that protect effectively in other kinds of frontal crashes have difficulty withstanding underride impacts, the group said.

The lethal nature of car-truck crashes has been a concern to automotive safety professionals since the 1970s, the insurance institute said. The 2011 study came after researchers wanted to know why fatalities weren’t declining faster, after improvements like advanced air bags and stronger safety cages.

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