Lawyers in our firm have successfully handled a number of cases over the years involving defective cab guards on big trucks. Prior to January 2004, federal regulations required aftermarket header boards or front end structures for added protection of heavy truck cabs in the event of a load shift. These devices are more commonly known as “headache racks” or “cab guards.” Although no longer required by federal regulations, heavy truck operators still use cab guards to protect the cab and occupants in the event of a load shift and to provide added crashworthiness.
The revised Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) issued in January 2004 no longer require a cab guard for trucks – instead the regulations now focus more on load securement than on vehicle crashworthiness. Use of a cab guard is now left to the discretion of operators. Generally, cab guards attach to truck frame rails behind the cab structure. The header board or cab guard, when placed on the back of a heavy truck, is not part of the cargo securement system. Instead, they offer crashworthiness protection in the event of a load shift. Cargo securement methods, under both old and new regulations, are generally left to the discretion of heavy truck operators, with guidance from the FMCSR.
Unfortunately, there are no government design or performance standards that apply to the manufacturers of cab guards. As a result, operators are often unaware of poor design and manufacturing issues than can be associated with the performance and safety of cab guards. The old FMCSR provided performance criteria, not design criteria, for cab guards that operators had to meet. Old §393.106 governed the performance requirements of cab guards prior to 2004. Performance requirements under §393.106 generally required that a cab guard be able to resist a static load equal to 50% of the weight of the cargo being transported, uniformly distributed over the entire surface of the cab guard.
Cab guard manufacturers have taken the performance requirement of old §393.106 and translated it into a loose design protocol. Our experience has shown that typically cab guard manufacturers statically load a welded aluminum cab guard that has been designed to fail at 20,000-25,000 pounds. According to the language of the old §393.106, such a guard would meet the performance requirement for cargo weighing 40,000-50,000 pounds. However, cab guard manufacturers’ weight limitation warnings can be somewhat misleading.
In most instances, warning stickers indicate that cab guards have been tested to “comply” with FMCSR requirements for suitable loads of 40,000-50,000 pounds. The manufacturers never inform operators that the cab guards will actually fail at static loads of 20,000-25,000 pounds. Thus, the warning labels give the impression that the guard will actually resist a load of 40,000-50,000 pounds. Under the new FMSCR §393.114, there is no performance requirement for cab guards attached to a heavy truck. Now, only front end structures attached to trailers where cargo is in contact with the structure have a performance requirement.
More importantly, our experience with the cab guard industry reveals that manufacturers have never tested their products dynamically to determine how the product will perform under real-world accident conditions. Typically, cab guard manufacturers claim that as long as they comply with the performance criteria of old §393.106, they have done all that is required from a product design standpoint. However, the provisions of the FMCSR are not regulations that apply to the manufacturers, and they are not design standards.
In some instances, cab guard manufacturers cannot show that any product engineering ever occurred for cab guards sold to the public. In some cases, manufacturers have taken the position that their cab guards are not designed to protect the cab during accidents, but rather offer protection during normal braking. However, the products are marketed as safety devices to protect drivers and occupants during the event of load shifts. Cab guard manufacturers generally admit that their product is intended to protect occupants from shifting cargo and admit that they have not restricted use to only non-accident circumstances.
Finally, most cab guards are made of heat-treated aluminum. This material allows for the production of a lightweight product that is relatively easy to maintain. However, welding heat-treated aluminum generally reduces the strength of the aluminum by one third. Welded aluminum is also subject to structural fatigue due to cyclical loading during truck operation. This structure fatigue also erodes the strength of the cab guard. Finally, welded aluminum will not bend or stretch under loads like steel does. Therefore, when welded aluminum reaches its maximum load, it typically fractures and catastrophically fails.
A steel cab guard will not fail in such a fashion and typically provides better protection to occupants, even past its predicted loading capacity. If a manufacturer is going to market a safety device, it should have appropriate engineering and design components. Current aluminum cab guards generally miss their mark for safety. If you need more information on this subject, contact Ben Baker, a lawyer in our firm, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Ben.Baker@beasleyallen.com.