Imagine you're driving down the freeway at night in your compact sedan. You start to pass a semi-tractor trailer on the left. The truck driver doesn't notice you, though. He moves into your lane, causing a collision.
But this is no ordinary accident. Because the trailer is so high off the ground, your car is swept underneath the trailer. The truck's wheels run over your vehicle. Your roof is ripped off, and you both catapult forward at high speed.
As you can imagine, such scenarios rarely end well for anyone in the car. These so-called "truck underride accidents" claim upwards of 200 lives per year across the United States.
What's being done?
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has come up with a potential solution. It has engineered a new device, called a side underride guard, to help mitigate injuries in the event of a crash with a heavy truck.
A side underride guard is a length of metal affixed to both sides of a heavy truck's trailer. It extends from the base of the trailer to just inches above the ground. The guard is durable enough that, in the event of a crash, the car will bounce off of the truck, thus diminishing the chance of fatality. IIHS crash tests found that side-impact crashes with semi-trailers were 90 percent less likely to result in fatalities when a side underride guard was used.
Unfortunately, as is the case with almost any new regulation, the trucking industry is hesitant to make side underride guards mandatory. Even as members of congress are pushing to require them, trucking companies and their lobbyists are fighting back. They say the guards can render a trailer's load dangerously imbalanced, which can lead to more accidents than the guards would prevent in the first place. Moreover, the added weight of the guards would result in worse gas mileage, and higher costs-costs, the trucking industry warns, that will most likely be passed on to consumers.
Yet legislators and other researchers are skeptical, and note that it's unlikely the guards will be prohibitively costly. Especially when the lack of side underride guards already has its own high cost, in drivers' lives.