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Federal safety regulators want to improve the odds that occupants will survive if their car rear-ends a semi-trailer truck. To do that, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is proposing new rules that would require stronger rear impact guards on trailers and semi-trailers.

“A key component of [the Transportation Department's] safety mission is ensuring that trucking, an essential element in our transportation system, operates not just efficiently, but safely,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “Today’s proposal is another important step in that effort.”

Most trailers and semitrailers are already required to have bars, known as rear impact guards, hanging down from the back of the trailer to prevent "underride" -- an inoffensive term for a terrible outcome.

When a car rear-ends a truck, there is a possibility that it will "underride" the rear of the truck, which is normally higher than the car. That can result in the occupants of the car being severely injured or killed, often through decapitation.

The current federal standard calls for rear-impact guards on trucks that can withstand a 30-mile-per-hour impact. The new standard would bump that up to 35 miles per hour. Canada already has a 35-mph standard.

“Robust trailer rear impact guards can significantly reduce the risk of death or injury to vehicle occupants in the event of a crash into the rear of a trailer or semitrailer,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind.

NHTSA said most new trailers on the road today already meet the standard; it estimates that the annual cost of installing and maintaining the guards, including the increased fuel consumption resultiing from the bumpers' added weight, would be about $13 million.

Newer guards performing better

IIHS photo

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has been asking NHTSA for a stronger underride standard since 2001, after testing bars on trailers built by three companies to federal standards. Cars with crash-test dummies slammed into the bars, which buckled or broke in several tests. The trailers often broke through the windshields.

Tests the insurance institute conducted showed some trailer guards that met Canadian regulations didn’t perform well when cars crash into them at an angle, said David Zuby, chief research officer for the group. Many manufacturers already are designing guards that are stronger, he said.

However, in a 2014 report, IIHS said newer guards were performing better. The non-profit institute ran a 2010 Chevrolet Malibu into the back of a Vanguard trailer hitched to a parked rig. The car hurtled toward the trailer at 35 mph, smashing into the outer half of the trailer's rear underride guard.

"When the test was over, the Malibu ended up behind the trailer — not crushed beneath it — because the Vanguard's underride guard held up. That's important because serious injuries and death can occur," the IIHS report said. 

"The Vanguard's underride guard performed great — a big improvement from our earlier tests," said Sean O'Malley, senior test coordinator for the Institute.

Truckers optimistic

The trucking industry is generally supportive of the NHTSA proposal. Sean McNally of the American Trucking Association said the guards have been in use for some time.

“While we believe the best underride guard is still the one that doesn’t need to be used, ATA is optimistic this proposal will be a step forward for highway safety,” McNally said in a statement emailed to Claims Journal, an insurance industry publication.

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