Trapped Under Trucks: How Regulators Failed to Act to Prevent Underride Crashes - ProPublica

Collisions in which a passenger vehicle such as a car, SUV or pickup truck slides beneath a large commercial truck are called underride crashes in the jargon of the transportation industry. And they happen all the time: Each year hundreds of Americans die in this type of collision.

The federal government has been aware of the problem for at least five decades.

Reporters for ProPublica and FRONTLINE obtained thousands of pages of government documents on underride crashes — technical research reports, meeting notes, memoranda and correspondence — dating back to the 1960s. The records reveal a remarkable and disturbing hidden history, a case study of government inaction in the face of an obvious threat to public wellbeing. Year after year, federal officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the country’s primary roadway safety agency, ignored credible scientific research and failed to take simple steps to limit the hazards of underride crashes.

NHTSA officials failed to act, in part, because they didn’t know how many people were killed in the crashes. Their poor efforts at collecting data over the years left them unable to determine the scale of the problem. This spring the agency publicly acknowledged that it has failed to accurately count underride collisions for decades.

According to NHTSA’s latest figures, more than 400 people died in underride crashes in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available. But experts say the true number of deaths is likely higher.

Records show the agency often deferred to the wishes of the trucking industry, whose lobbyists repeatedly complained that simple safety measures would be prohibitively expensive and do lasting damage to the American economy. During the 1980s, for example, industry leaders argued they couldn’t afford to equip trucks with stronger rear bumpers, which are also called rear underride guards; the devices are meant to prevent cars from slipping beneath the trailer during a rear-end collision. The beefier, more robust rear guards would’ve cost an additional $127 each, according to industry estimates.

David Friedman was a top official at NHTSA during the Obama years. “NHTSA has been trying, for decades, to do something about underride deaths. And yet over and over, they haven’t made the progress that we need. Why? Well, I think part of it is because industry just keeps pushing back and undermining their efforts,” said Friedman, who served as the agency’s acting administrator in 2014. “There are so many hurdles put in the way of NHTSA staff when it comes to putting a rule on the books that could address issues like underride.”

The technology at issue — strong steel guards mounted to the back and sides of trucks — is simple and “relatively inexpensive,” Friedman argued. “The costs are small.”

Start looking at underride crashes and you’ll quickly notice a pattern of awful head injuries: broken skulls, severely damaged brains, even decapitations. Some victims suffer crushing injuries to the torso or get speared in the chest by jagged chunks of steel.

Truck drivers are rarely harmed in the crashes.

The American Trucking Associations, a trade group representing the nation’s major commercial haulers, for decades opposed safety regulations that would’ve improved rear underride guards and saved lives. Dan Horvath, the ATA’s vice president for safety policy, said he has little information about the organization’s past positions, but he acknowledged that costs were “a very real factor” for the industry.

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Organizations: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration American Trucking Associations 

People: David Friedman Dan Horvath 

Tags: Cars Transportation Corruption Corporate Negligence Lobbying Mass Death 

Type: Headlines