WASHINGTON — There are major developments in the fight to require lifesaving equipment on big rigs driving next to you on the road. Safety advocates say it could help prevent devastating crashes known as underride accidents.
One of the nation’s largest trucking groups now says it is open to some of the proposed requirements. But the question remains if the industry’s concessions will go far enough for the families of accident victims.
Underride accidents are crashes that are so violent, caskets of victims often stay closed at funerals. While exact numbers aren’t tracked, the trucking industry acknowledged in a recent lawsuit that at least 200 people die in side-underride crashes every year. The number of rear-underride deaths is estimated to be even greater – and safety advocates believe those deaths are far underreported.
Lois Durso’s daughter Roya was killed in an underride accident on an Indiana highway in 2004.
Marianne Karths’ young daughters, Mary and AnnaLeah, died in an underride accident on a Georgia interstate about a decade later.
Now, Marianne and Lois lobby lawmakers one congressman, one envelope, one petition at a time. The two women, brought together by the deaths of their daughters, recently filled binders with petitions and took them door-to-door on Capitol Hill, asking lawmakers to pass new underride protections.
Each petition was color-coded for a reason.
“Purple was AnnaLeah’s favorite color,” Durso said. “Orange was Mary’s. And burgundy, Roya’s. And the reason that we’re doing the red is because of all the people that have died because of truck underride.”
“All the spilled blood,” Marianne said.
Watch below: Marianne Karth reads a poem written by her daughter AnnaLeah when she was 12 years old.
The mothers, now joined by a growing army of family members whose loved ones have also died in underride accidents, are demanding Congress pass laws requiring what’s known as underride guards on the sides and front of semis. They also are calling for updating standards for underride guards already required on the back of trucks to make them stronger and hopefully prevent vehicles from having their tops sheered off in a crash.
WUSA9 has been following these mother’s journeys since 2017 in its ongoing series Big Rigs, Big Risks. And now, after years of resistance by the trucking industry, WUSA9 has learned one the of nations leading voices for independent truck drivers may be ready to agree to at least some change.
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“We agree to the rear guards. We don’t have a problem with that,” said Lewie Pugh, executive vice president of the Owner-Operated Independent Truck Driver Association or OOIDA, which represents more than 160,000 members nationwide.
It is the first time a national trucking organization has offered support for new underride regulations. But there’s a catch.
Pugh says OOIDA would only support laws strengthening rear guard standards, which WUSA9’s investigation found don’t always hold up in accidents.
But OOIDA remains opposed to requiring guards on the front and sides of big rigs, despite crash tests done by the insurance institute for highway safety showing those side guards can stop side underride and possibly save lives.
In fact, it was a side underride accident that killed Lois Durso’s daughter.
“When we were in church and we were praying she would always hold my hand,” Durso recalled. “It’s just not the same. Life is not the same without her.”
OOIDA said all the research – and crash tests like the one staged last year, just blocks from Capitol Hill, to draw attention to the fight for new underride safety requirements – doesn’t convince their organization side guards will be worth the investment.
“My last semi-trailer was $42,000 just with that trailer,” Pugh said. “So now we’re looking at upping the price another $2,000 to $3,000. That’s hard for a little guy to eat. That’s hard for a big guy to eat. There’s not that much profit in this business and if you want me to buy this technology and buy into this technology, you’re going to need to show me it works.”
Pugh says that means real-world testing. Prototypes, paid for by the government, studied by a federal agency like the Department of Transportation for effectiveness. In fact, a March 2019 report from the U.S. General Accountability Office, or GAO, called on the DOT to conduct additional research on side guards in a report on truck underride accidents released earlier this year.
Back on Capitol Hill, the bill that would require the expanded truck underride guards has been languishing in committee. So, the group fighting for these reforms has a new strategy.
Instead of pushing for passage of the entire Stop Underrides Act, WUSA9 has learned safety advocates, along with the staffers from the two offices that originally introduced that legislation, Senators Kristin Gillibrand and Marco Rubio, are now pushing for the key provisions of the Stop Underrides Bill be written into what’s known as the Fixing American’s Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act.
The FAST Act is basically a funding bill for improvements to the nations’ transportation and infrastructure. It’s up for renewal every five years and it’s up for passage again in early 2020. The hope is, by getting some of the key safety provisions from underrides bill written into the FAST Act, that could be a more effective and quicker way to get those safety requirements out on the road.
Karth and Durso don’t know which provisions, if any, lawmakers will agree to include in the FAST Act. But it now appears to be their last, best chance to see new underride regulations go into effect.
They just hope their petitions and continued message helps force change that spares other families their grief.
“What we’re doing is not as much for our daughters,” Durso said. “It’s a way to honor them, but it’s for other people. We know what can happen and there are ways to prevent it. Because we know that this isn’t going to bring them back”
In addition to calling on the Department of Transportation to research the effectiveness of side underride guards, the General Accountability Office is also asking the DOT to update the way state and local agencies track underride accidents to better track the number of deaths.
If you would like to sign the petition asking lawmakers to pass laws requiring tractor trailer underride guards, click here.