Underride Accidents on Tractor-Trailers Are Often Deadly

Stephen M. Smith
Last Updated:
December 2, 2019

Few accidents are as deadly as those where cars end up under tractor-trailers. If your car slides under a trailer, its hard to avoid grave injuries. However, simple steel strips called underride bars on the rear or sides of a trailer can save lives.

In recent years, the courts have awarded large verdicts in underride accident lawsuits, prompting calls for better safety standards in the trucking industry.

In September, the family of a young man who lost his life in an underside accident was awarded $42 million against a trucking company and a trailer manufacturer.

In a shocking crash in New Mexico, 16-year-old Riley Hein careened off an embankment. His car ended up lodged underneath the side of a trailer manufactured by Utility Manufacturing Company.

The truck driver dragged the car for a half a mile until it caught on fire and Riley burned to death, his father said.

Riley’s family argued a side underside guard on the trailer may have saved the young man’s life. This August, a New Mexico jury awarded $42 million to Hein’s family in a lawsuit against the trucking company Barkandhi Express and Utility.

The family claimed the trucking company was negligent for not having a side underride guard on the trailer. A guard could have stopped Hein’s car from getting lodged under the tractor-trailer.

Side guards are manufactured to prevent vehicles from sliding underneath the side of 18-wheelers during accidents.

The TV station WUSA9 has campaigned on the issue for years. At present, trucking companies and big rig manufacturers do not have to fit underside bars on their vehicles, even though the industry has acknowledged the change would save more than 200 lives a year.

The channel reported the industry is actively seeking to defend itself against lawsuits rather than making its trucks safer.

In a letter, the Truck Trailers Manufacturers Association asked major trailer manufacturers for data on the possible costs of side guards "to develop and evaluate possible defense strategies to side underride lawsuits."

That letter was revealed in 2004 after a $36 million verdict against a Texas company on the behalf of a victim of an underride accident. The truck in question lacked side guards.

WUSA9’s investigation “Big Rigs, Big Risks," prompted U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to introduce bipartisan legislation requiring underride guards on the sides and front of semis. as well as updating standards for guards to be fitted on the back of trucks.

“It’s shocking how this has hurt families and communities across the country,” Gillibrand said.

Two years after the legislation was introduced it remains parked in a committee.

Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that said the Department of Transportation has not done enough to address underride crashes.

The DOT has agreed to do more to address the public health risk but has not provided a clear timeline as to when this would happen.

The report highlighted an average of 219 fatal underside crashes every year but concluded the actual figure may be larger. The report stated:

“Police officers responding to a crash do not use a standard definition of an underride crash and states’ crash report forms vary, with some not including a field for collecting underride data. Further, police officers receive limited information on how to identify and record underride crashes.”

The GAO says the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration may not have accurate data at its disposal to support efforts to reduce traffic deaths from underride accidents.

Concern about underside crashes has sparked a national movement. Marianne Karth and Lois Durso, mothers who both lost children in accidents in which cars slide under trucks, successfully lobbied to get bi-partisan legislation introduced in 2018.

However, it may take more big lawsuits against trucking companies to push the balance in favor of this relatively cheap safety feature being fitted on all tractor-trailers on the roads of Virginia and elsewhere.

Talk to a Virginia Trucking Accident Lawyer About Underside Crashes

At the Smith Law Center we help many victims of trucking accidents  Given the size of these vehicles, injuries are usually more acute and motorists are less likely to survive a crash involving a big rig. Critical injuries like traumatic brain injuries, broken bones, and damaged organs are more likely in semi-truck accidents. Please call us for a free consultation today at (757) 244-7000.

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