For the first time, congressional lawmakers have publicly pledged support for truck underride safety reform.
The legislation was written by two grieving mothers on a mission to stop deadly underride accidents.
Months after the WUSA 9 Special Assignment Unity series “Big Rigs, Big Risks” began, investigative reporter Eric Flack has learned some congressmen and a senator have vowed to introduce the mothers' bill within the month to try to get it signed into law.
“We should have been doing this a long time ago,” said Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA). DeSaulnier said it’s time to pass sweeping semi-truck underride legislation that requires stronger rear guards on tractor trailers, and for the first time side guards on semi’s as well.
The goal is to prevent underride accidents, when vehicles slide underneath trailers crushing the passengers inside.
“When you have people that should have a long life full of all the blessings that life can give and the contributions they could make, when you see them cut short, you have to ask yourself is there something we could have done to prevent this from happening?” DeSaulnier said.
In August, 2017 the Special Assignment Unit covered crash tests at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Virginia. Those demonstrations showed the guards required by the proposed new rules could save lives.
The number of potential lives saved has remained unclear because of gaps in the reporting of these types of accidents. That’s one of the things DeSaulnier has wanted to address.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to get down and figure out what the risk is,” DeSaulnier said. “We've already known that people are dying. We know that maybe 300 people a year die from these types on incidents. So, there’s an urgency to it.”
As WUSA 9 has reported, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has spent years considering stronger rear-guard requirements. But safety advocates said those standards still fall short of what’s needed.
NHTSA has not supported requiring side guards on tractor trailers, because it’s cost benefit analysis showed side guards would exceed $9.6 million. That’s the amount NHTSA established as the threshold for how much is reasonable to spend -- per life saved.
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“But just to say, 'No we’re not interested in looking at it, or the cost benefit doesn’t work,' I think is really, not just an affront to the families that have gone through this tragedy, but it’s an affront to anybody who’s lost a loved one that shouldn’t have,” DeSaulnier said.
DeSaulnier, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said he has been working with Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to get the bill introduced.
It’s a version of the legislation written by Marianne Karth and Lois Durso, mothers of children who have died in underride accidents. The bill, originally named the RAMCUP Act, is now called the Stop Underrides Act.
Since this spring Karth and Durso have been going door-to-door on Capitol Hill trying to gather support.
"I think it's making a huge impact, I do.” Durso said on a recent trip to Washington, D.C. “I think that people are listening."
The mothers hoped the trucking industry was paying attention.
But at the crash test in August, Jeff Simms, President of the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association, explained adding the weight of new guards to trailers would force trucking companies to remove payload and add even more tractor trailers on the road.
Simms said the proposed changes would negate any safety benefit.
“There’s a lot of operational issues you have to consider,” Simms said.
Safety experts countered saying there’s no data to show safety gains from new guards would be erased by adding trailers on the road. Moreover, some major trucking companies have seemed to be getting on board.
Many have already started building semi's with stronger rear guards that exceed current standards. In September Wabash National debuted a prototype side impact guard for its trucks.
One key voice missing from the Stop Underrides Act has been a Republican sponsor. The Democrats who’ve signed on really want to get at least one Republican in both the House and Senate on board before introducing it. They said Republican support is essential if they hope to get this bill out of committee and onto the floor for a vote.