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Feds act to stop cars from being wedged under truck trailers. It took 8 years. – NJ.com


The federal agency that oversees traffic safety has announced stronger protections to make sure cars don’t get wedged under tractor-trailers — eight years after officials first promised to address the issue.

The new rules strengthen the standards for rear underride guards that stop cars from going under trailers. They also set up a federal advisory committee to study the need for side guards, and to develop a requirement for such protections.

But safety advocates said the new standards fell short of what was needed, and even below what top trailer manufacturers already are producing.

Congress required the underride standards as part of President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure law. The U.S. Transportation Department’s new safety strategy also included new standards for underguards.

“This new rule will improve protection for passengers and drivers of passenger vehicles while also meeting a critical mandate from Congress under the bipartisan infrastructure law,” NHTSA Administrator Steven Cliff said.

Last year, 5,601 people were killed in crashes involving large trucks, a 13% increase over 2020 and the largest number in almost four decades, according to NHTSA preliminary figures released in May.

The rule announced Thursday came eight years after NHTSA first announced it would look at whether to strengthen the standards for rear underguards, which have been required on truck trailers since 1998.

That was a response to the death of actress Jayne Mansfield, who was killed in 1967 when the car she was riding in rear-ended a tractor trailer and slid underneath it.

NHTSA agreed in July 2015 to go ahead with a proposed rule. But President Donald Trump’s administration scrapped it in 2020 before it was resurrected in the infrastructure law.

The House Appropriations Committee, in passing its transportation spending bill Thursday, cited the original July 2014 announcement in calling on NHTSA to “prioritize” requiring “rear and side underride protection devices.”

Safety advocates expressed disappointment with the end product, with Zach Cahalan, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition, calling the new rule “underwhelming at best” and said it “fails to propose a standard that will substantially improve life safety.”

“Much more will be needed from NHTSA moving forward,” said Cahalan, whose group filed the 2014 request for action on underride guards.

“The gap between what is proposed and what is needed is shocking,” said Truck Safety Coalition board member Jennifer Tierney, whose father was killed in an underride crash in 1983 in North Carolina. “There is no shortage of rear underride guards already in the marketplace that far exceeds the requirement proposed today. Sadly, this is a low bar to clear that will not move the needle on safety.”

And Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, called the new rule “completely inadequate” and said her group was determining its next steps.

Advocates general counsel Peter Kurdock said the new rule was weaker than the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s standards for underguards, which the top trailer companies meet.

“They’re cutting what the leading industry manufacturers are already doing, which is really shocking,” Kurdock said.

The lack of progress in adopting new underride standards was one of the examples cited in January 2021 when NJ Advance Media reported how proven steps to reduce truck crashes had been ignored by federal agencies for years.

NHTSA also said it would recommend that states mention in their crash data whether there was an underride, and would conduct research on whether there were ways to better protect automobile passengers in event of an underride crash.

Legislation introduced in March 2021 by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators would require both rear and side underride guards on all trucks, including single-unit vehicles, add the guards to the list of key truck components inspected annually, and have the Transportation Department periodically review the underguard standards to see if they needed changes.

NHTSA’s 2014 announcement also said it would look at requiring underguards for single-unit trucks, such as box trucks. The agency said Thursday it would address that issue at a later time.

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Jonathan D. Salant may be reached at jsalant@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him at @JDSalant.

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