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Grieving families say US Department of Transportation failed victims of tractor-trailer underride crashes

Protestors called for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require side guard and stronger rear guards on all tractor trailers.

WASHINGTON — Underride crashes are some of the most violent accidents on the road. It happens when a vehicle slides underneath a tractor trailer sheering off the top of the vehicle, nearly always resulting in a death.

On Thursday, families from across the country who lost loved ones in underride crashes gathered at the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C. demanding stricter safety regulations.

Marianne Karth and Lois Durso were among them, taking another step in their long journey to bring change to trucking safety after losing their daughters both died in an underride crash. 

“It’s been 10 years since our crash on May 4, 2013, when we lost AnnaLeah and Mary,” Karth said. “And the pain never goes away.”

“It’s sorrow, it’s grief, it’s longing to see her,” added Durso.

Both mothers said crashes like the one that killed their daughters are totally preventable.

“It is primitive engineering that works every time,” Karth’s husband Jerry said. “The difference is life and death. So why aren’t we doing it?”

Court documents show the U.S. Department of Transportation has known about the underride problem since the 1960s. But more than 50 years later, the National Highway Transportation Administration does not require trailer manufacturers to include side guards on their trailers.

And while NHTSA does now require rear guards, it does not mandate those rear guards meet the highest safety standards on the market as rated by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Those guards prevent nearly 100% of underride crashes.

“There’s still thousands of trailers being sold with the too weak guard," Karth said.

In a statement, the National Highway Transportation Administration told WUSA9 NHTSA’s work to reduce underride crashes includes:

  • Improving data collection
  • Launching critical safety research and conducting comprehensive analyses
  • Establishing a formal underride advisory committee
  • Proposing regulations that would prevent and mitigate underride crashes like  automatic emergency braking systems

Another big part of the underride problem is underreporting. The advocacy group “Stop Underrides” says only 17 states have an “underride” category on crash reports. The group says that means every year, hundreds -- if not thousands -- more people die from underride accidents than are reported. “Stop Underrides” says it has documented 749 underride deaths in the last three years alone.

In 2017,  a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York instroduced the Stop Underride Act of 2017. The legislation was written in honor of the thousands of victims of underride accidents nationwide. The Act was co-sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and back by House Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN)

On Thursday, Senator Gillibrand said in a statement, “Underride crashes are unnecessary, preventable tragedies,” said Senator Gillibrand. “I was proud to get parts of the Stop Underrides Act into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, but it is clear that to prevent more deaths, NHTSA needs to go further by creating tougher standards for rear guards and mandating the use of side guards on trucks. As we memorialize those who have passed, I look forward to working with my colleagues to make our roads safer for all users.”

Thursday afternoon, families of underride victims gathered outside the DOT, ringing a bell to honor each one of them.

“If we can make these trucks more safe, it’s really, really important,” said Abby Endicott, whose niece died in an underride crash. “Saving all these wonderful lives.”

“We know that everything that we do will never bring them back, but that’s why we are doing this -- so that other people won’t ever have to face the grief that we do,” Marianne Karth said.

Durso remains dedicated, but frustrated.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take for them to make some changes,” she said of the DOT.

The DOT tells WUSA9 it is taking steps to gather information and data to support “evidence-based decision-making concerning rear and side underride guards.”

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