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Saving Lives with Side Guards on Tractor-Trailers

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Fatalities from slipping under truck trailers aren’t new. It was 50 years ago in 1967 that actress Jayne Mansfield died after her car went under the rear of a trailer, igniting calls for rear and side protection to be installed on trailers. Finally, in 1998, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) made rear guards a requirement on trailers. They are known to this day as Mansfield bars. But the sides are still unprotected.

Reducing Traffic Fatalities

The sides of tractor-trailers are high off the ground, with nothing to stop drivers, passengers, bicyclists, and pedestrians from falling or sliding under the exposed space, thus getting swept under the rear wheels—or worse.

Side-guard encounters are often fatal when it comes to pedestrian and bike crashes. More so than with passenger vehicles, these types of truck accidents are likely to be fatal: almost half of bicyclists and over one-fourth of pedestrians who are killed in a large truck crash first hit the side of the truck. Through a recent period of five years, 556 bicyclists and pedestrians were killed in the U.S. after side impacts involving large trucks.

When it comes to passenger vehicles, when 206 crashes involving them were studied in the Large Truck Crash Causation Study (LTCCS), hitting a truck’s side meant that the occupants of the passenger vehicles sustained the most severe injuries in 143 cases out of the 206.

Side guards would prevent people from becoming victims of the trailer’s design by covering the exposed, open space. The technology exists so that the guards can be retrofitted onto existing trucks.

Saving Fuel Dollars

Not only would side guards save lives, they would save fuel dollars as well. Side skirts, which are aerodynamic and similar to side guards, have the primary purpose of saving fuel by reducing air drag. A long-haul trailer can produce $5,000 in fuel savings annually if it has side skirts. These skirts have the added benefit of protecting road users of all kinds in side-impact crashes with the truck’s trailer.

The Role of Technology

Historically, the lack of appropriate technology has been one big cause of all the foot-dragging when it comes to making side guards a requirement. But there is hope. A lighter-weight guard than is currently available has been developed, consisting of polyester webbing. Early testing holds promise for it.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has decided that side guards would reduce injuries and deaths. For that reason, it put forth a non-binding resolution in 2014 that all new trailers be equipped with side protection systems. However, the lobbying portion of the trucking industry, the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association, has consistently opposed requiring side guards, citing added costs and other concerns.

A Final Word from a Bereaved Family

Roya Sadigh died in what’s called a side underride crash during a 2005 Indiana snowstorm. She and her fiancé lost control of the car, slid under a tractor trailer, and were crushed by the rear wheels. Roya’s mother, Lois Durso, while referring to the number of people killed in such crashes, commented, “If there was a plane crash and 200 people died, the government would be all over that. My daughter didn’t [even] make it to the hospital.”

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait many more years for side guards or side skirts to be implemented on trailers. It should be all about saving lives.


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