On June 3, 2019, a Penske rental truck traveling west on a Mississippi State Highway collided head-on with an eastbound Ford passenger van, killing eight people. Federal investigators found that the collision resulted in a horrific front override in which the front of the truck rolled onto the top of the van and penetrated the passenger compartment. Only one person in the van, the driver, survived.
The tragic crash is one of many override collisions that occur every year on U.S. highways, killing hundreds of people. The crashes occur when two vehicles of varying heights collide – usually a tractor-trailer or other large commercial truck and a passenger vehicle. This type of impact causes the smaller vehicle to ride under the larger vehicle, almost always with catastrophic consequences for occupants of the passenger vehicle.
According to federal data, override crashes killed at least 219 people on average every year between 2007 and 2018. However, due to the high variability in which underride crashes are recognized and reported, the number of such crashes is almost certainly much higher, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Front underride collisions
For decades, federal transportation regulations have mandated that tractor-trailers and other high-standing commercial vehicles be equipped with rear-underride guards. Safety advocates and survivors of underride crashes are also calling for laws that would help protect occupants of passenger vehicles in collisions with the sides of trucks. These types of crashes generally occur when a tractor-trailer jackknifes across other highway lanes.
Front underride and override crashes occur less frequently than rear and side overrides, however, and don’t garner as much attention, but these accidents can be made more survivable with the addition of front underride guards. This relatively inexpensive fix has the potential to save dozens, if not hundreds, of lives and spare many more from lifelong catastrophic injuries and emotional trauma.
It’s impossible to say with certainty whether a front guard on the rental truck in the Mississippi crash (a 2020 International Harvester Corporation box truck) would have spared the lives of the eight people killed, but a front guard undoubtedly would have given them a better chance.
The federal government needs to act
Underride guard advocate and researcher Marianne Karth, who lost two of her daughters in a 2013 underride crash with a tractor-trailer, notes on her blog that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has called on federal transportation regulators to require front underride on most heavy trucks multiple times.
After investigating a 2009 crash in which a truck overrode three cars and 10 people died as a result, the NTSB made the following recommendation:
Since 2003, European Union countries have required front underride protection systems on all newly manufactured heavy-goods vehicles, which indicates that such a standard is feasible. The NTSB concludes that collisions between passenger vehicles and the front of single-unit trucks or tractor-trailers are common types of crashes that result in fatalities, and front underride contributes to crash severity. The NTSB therefore reiterates its prior recommendations that NHTSA. . . require all newly manufactured trucks with gross vehicle weight ratings over 10,000 pounds to be equipped with front underride protection systems. . .
A bipartisan bill floating in the U.S. Senate calls for both front and side underride guards on large commercial vehicles and trailers. The Stop Underrides Act, or S.665 would also require the U.S. Department of Transportation to review underride standards every five years “to evaluate the need for changes in response to advancements in technology.”
The trucking lobby opposes the proposed measures and no action has been taken on it since it was last introduced in March 2019.
“Tell me, how many people could still be alive today had NHTSA acted upon that safety recommendation?” Ms. Karth wrote on her blog. “Congress, I’ll say it again: the ball is in your court. Will you act decisively to STOP all forms of truck underride?”
Chris Glover, the managing attorney for our Atlanta office, has experience handling vehicle accident cases involving 18-wheelers, heavy trucks and other commercial vehicles. He would be happy to talk with you about a case involving truck accidents including serious injuries and deaths as a result of underride or override crashes. Attorneys like Chris hope to spur manufacturers and industry to change the way they make and regulate products in order to better protect consumers.