Hidden Danger On The Highway

by John P. Scanlon

In the past, we have attempted to highlight certain products or activities that might prove dangerous to our readers. Today, once again, we are examining a hidden danger that most motorists are unaware of that can have deadly consequences.

At some point, it happens to all drivers. You are on an expressway, the pavement is slick and all of a sudden the driver in front of you hits the brakes. On some days, because the pavement is so slick or because there are vision obstructions, you may be unable to stop your car quickly enough and you may rear end the vehicle in front of you. These impacts happen everyday in the Chicagoland area. They typically involve thirty mile an hour rear end impacts when one driver fails to stop quickly enough and rear ends the vehicle in front of him.

If this happens to you and you strike another passenger vehicle the consequences of the accident will likely only involve minor whiplash type injuries and property damage to both vehicles. However, if you are unfortunate enough to be following an 18-wheel tractor trailer, the consequences could well be deadly. Under federal law, all semi tractor trailers are required to have an underride bumper at the rear most portion of the vehicle like the one shown in the photograph accompanying this article. You have seen these underride guards before. Most of you probably have assumed that when you strike these guards they will be sufficiently strong to prevent your car from sliding underneath the tractor trailer. This assumption is flat out wrong.

In fact, if you strike the typical underride guard at a speed in excess of thirty miles an hour, most guards will fail allowing the vehicle to slide underneath the tractor trailer.

When this happens, the front seat passengers in the striking vehicle are often decapitated or severely brain injured. These are among the most gruesome accidents that the state police has to investigate. For years, consumer groups here in the United States have tried to encourage Congress and the Department of Transportation to strengthen the regulations so that truck guards can withstand impacts of greater than thirty miles an hour. As a result, all semi tractor trailers manufactured after 1998 now have a slightly improved guard. However, virtually every expert in this area agrees quite a bit more could be done to make these guards safer under most accident scenarios.

The reason these regulations have not been strengthened is simply a matter of dollars and cents. The truck industry doesn't want to spend a hundred or more dollars on each unit to make these trucks safe when struck by vehicles traveling more than thirty miles an hour. Instead, the industry is willing take the risk that their trucks will not be struck by passenger vehicles traveling at these speeds.

For now, consumers can encourage their elected officials to revisit the issue of these underride guards and enact regulations requiring stronger guards. In addition, caution can be taken while driving on the highway when following these big rigs.