Road travel within the U.S. has become increasingly more dangerous over time. There are currently more vehicles sharing the road than ever, and these vehicles are larger and more powerful than in past generations, including commercial vehicles such as semi-trucks and trailers.
As more and more of the population takes to the internet to fulfill their need for products and goods; this growing trend of online shopping contributes heavily to an increase of large trucks sharing already congested roadways. Large trucks such as box trucks, semis, and 18 wheelers are important to the country’s interstate commerce and shipping needs, but lack of comprehensive safety standards and oversight can make them exceedingly hazardous to everyday drivers.
The combination of larger trucks and higher rates of trucks on the road overall, alongside passenger vehicles and motorcycles, inevitably leads to increases in accidents and collisions in day to day commute and travel. Unfortunately, truck accidents often end in catastrophic damages and injuries including a high rate of fatalities particularly of the drivers and passengers of the other vehicles involved. While it may not be possible to eliminate all the risks or factors that contribute to a truck accident, some measures can reduce the frequency of these tragic events and the severity of the impacts and injuries they cause.
Various types of truck accidents can occur on roadways, but one of the types of accidents involving large trucks that most often end in death or horrific injuries is an underride collision.
What Is a Truck Underride Accident?
An underride collision is when a passenger vehicle or motorcycle travels beneath a truck. This accident is a catastrophic occurrence that more often than not ends in tragedy with the death of the victim, or life-altering injuries to the individuals involved. Underride accidents most commonly occur in two specific scenarios where the vehicles either travel beneath the rear end of the truck, or when the vehicles travel beneath the truck from either side of the truck.
A truck accident when a vehicle travels underneath a truck from the front end is sometimes referred to as an override accident. In these cases, the truck has driven over the vehicle from the rear end of the vehicle. The most common example of this scenario is when a truck driver cannot stop in time and proceeds to run over the vehicle ahead of them.
Underride accidents can occur in many situations and due to many external forces and factors including the negligence of the driver of a passenger vehicle or the negligent actions or inaction of a truck driver in the operation of the truck or in the maintenance of equipment or safety features of the truck itself.
What Are the Most Common Types of Truck Underride Accidents That Occur?
Underride collisions can occur in various scenarios when trucks and vehicles share the road. Due to the unique nature and design of large trucks, they pose a unique risk and danger to other vehicles traveling the roadways.
A truck’s massive weight and size combined with its elevated profile make it particularly susceptible to a deadly underride collision. While a rear-end collision between passenger vehicles often results in minor damage and injuries, a rear-end collision with a large truck is much more dangerous and has a higher likelihood of ending with a fatality. Underride truck accidents are shocking and severe collisions that often result in impacts that are not survivable.
Common underride truck accidents with motorists include:
- Rear end underride accident – In most rear-end collisions into trucks without sufficient underride protective devices, the front side and interior forward compartment of a vehicle are crushed along with drivers and any front-seat passenger.
- Side impact underride collision – In side underride accidents, the tops of lower-profile vehicles can be sheared off or vehicles can be crushed and entrapped under the body of the truck.
- Front end accident – These collisions also referred to as override accidents often occur when a truck fails to stop in time and proceeds to impact the rear end and drive over the vehicle or vehicles ahead of them causing the vehicles to become lodged underneath the truck. Rear seat passengers are especially vulnerable to the dangers and risks of injury and death in this type of accident.
Why Are Underride Accidents so Catastrophic?
One of the primary reasons for the severe injuries and fatalities that occur from an underride accident falls mostly on the overall design of large trucks and semi-trailers. Their high profile provides for large spaces where a vehicle can forcefully travel underneath and become entrapped resulting in catastrophic damage.
A study on truck accident fatalities brought to light the serious problem of underride collisions and the increased risk of death associated with these accidents. The study discovered that over half of all fatal collisions involving trucks were associated with some form of an underride accident. In fact, of the underride accident fatalities reported 57 percent occurred in a front end collision, 22 percent in a rear-end collision, and 20 percent from a side-impact collision.
Since that study was first conducted, underride fatalities remain prevalent. Not much has been done in terms of mandatory regulations and standards during this time to sufficiently correct the problem of underride collisions, and provide solutions that will ultimately save lives.
While the NHTSA instituted some rear underride standards in 1998—mainly underride guards and protections to prevent the deadly outcome of these accidents—unfortunately, many of those measures proved ineffective or insufficient.
What is Truck Underride Protection?
Since the invention of the first semi-truck, these vehicles have been bigger and more powerful than most other vehicles sharing the road. With the development of this transportation and shipping marvel came the realization of the dangers these vehicles pose to other vehicles and drivers sharing the road. Even as early as 1913, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office approved patents for underride protection devices.
The creators of these devices understood some dangers presented by these larger vehicles. Since that time, numerous other patents and designs have been invented addressing underride hazards in the rear, the side, and the front end of semi-trucks and trailers.
Insufficient Underride Protections Fail to Shield Those Most at Risk of Injury or Death in an Underride Collision
The enforcement of laws and standards regarding truck underride protection has lagged in the U.S. and in some cases is nonexistent. One would think that based on the lack of regulations underride accidents have not been a significant problem on U.S. roadways. However, this could not be farther from the truth.
The harsh reality is that a needless number of lives were lost due to truck underride collisions. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report highlighted the need for further research and data collection of truck underride accidents. An average of 219 truck underride fatalities take place per year.
However, it was also clearly indicated that this number is very likely an underreporting of the true number of underride collision fatalities. The reason is that each state and local municipality may have a different definition or understanding of what constitutes an underride crash.
Although rear underride guards have become much more widespread in the U.S. trucking industry and on some types of trucks where federal regulations mandate them, the regulations of these guards and lack of inspection can be problematic. In some cases, the protection devices used by trucks have been inefficient in preventing vehicles from traveling underneath the trucks, in turn, failing to save lives and prevent severe injuries.
Beyond rear underride guards, there is no mandatory enforcement of side guards or front end guards. This eliminates any underride protection for most of the truck’s perimeter even though side and front-end underride collisions still account for up to 77 percent of fatalities in underride truck accidents.
The lack of uniformity in reporting underride accidents combined with lax regulations, enforcement, and inspection of underride guard protections for large trucks and semi-trailers continues to contribute to the rise in underride accidents resulting in tragic unnecessary deaths and injuries.
How Can Underride Protection Reduce the Risk of Injury or Fatalities In Underride Accidents?
Owners can install underride protective devices for the side, rear, and front of their large trucks and semis. However, the development and market for these devices are not as robust as they could be in the United States. This is in part due to a lack of mandatory regulations and general resistance from truck companies and manufacturers that disagree with the effectiveness, added costs, and potential shipping load reductions associated with the installation and requirement of these devices.
Unlike in the U.S., the European Union has mandated the use of underride guards for trucks since 1994. Underride protection is required by law in these countries on all sides of a semi-truck including the rear, side, and front-end.
The provisions and standards created in the EU have shown effectiveness in reducing fatalities. In Europe, truck crash fatalities reduced by over 23 percent, while during this same time truck accident fatalities across the U.S. rose by more than 15 percent.
The IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) conducted crash tests showing the benefits of side underride protections for semi-trailers. The study compared the damage in accidents between passenger vehicles and semi-trucks with and without underride protections.
In the crash test with no underride protective guards; vehicles became lodged underneath the trucks at 35 mph. In the crash test utilizing side guards at the same 35 mph speed, the vehicle collided with the truck and guard causing
damage to the front end of the vehicle, but no part of the vehicle became entrapped underneath the truck. The study provides strong evidence that underride guards can prove life-saving devices in many accidents between vehicles and semi-trailers.
The fact of the matter is further resources and money must be allocated to more research towards the development of effective and affordable underride protections that can save the lives of motorists, and appeal to the senses of truck companies and manufacturers concerned about aerodynamics and financial impacts. A lack of action on the part of the trucking industry and government to combat this growing problem will only lead to more lives lost.