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FRONTLINE premiers: America's Dangerous Trucks


Drawing on more than a year of reporting, including leaked documents and interviews with former government insiders, trucking industry representatives, and families of underride crash victims, America's Dangerous Trucks reveals how, for decades, federal regulators have proposed new rules to try to prevent underride crashes, but that pushback from trucking industry lobbyists has won the day over and over, leaving drivers of smaller vehicles vulnerable.

WGVU speaks with award-winning correspondent and producer A.C. Thompson.

A.C. Thompson: I was interested in the fact that we have rising deaths on America's roads, the death rate on America’s streets and highways has been surging. More than 40,000 people each year being killed. And it felt overwhelming to look at that whole universe of crashes. But I got a tip from somebody who said, hey, look at this one specific type of crash that involves passenger vehicles, cars, SUVs, pickup trucks and heavy commercial truck semi-trucks, tractor trailers. And by looking at that, it's kind of a microcosm of everything that's gone wrong with America's roadway transportation policy, with safety on America's roads. And that turned out to be true. The crashes that we looked at are called underride crashes. And that's when a passenger vehicle collides with a big truck because of the height difference between the passenger vehicle and the truck, the car, pickup truck or SUV slides beneath the larger vehicle, the truck, and the cause is just horrendous and horrible devastation. And as we dug into it, we found that it was this fascinating story where the government had ignored its own scientific research for decades. It taken decades to do anything about this and the industry, the trucking business, have been resistant to making even modest, cheap changes that would improve the safety and improve the survivability of these type of collisions.

Patrick Center: Paint me a picture of the type of crash. Is this front end? Side? Back end? Where are these underride collisions taking place?

AT: So there's kind of two classic scenarios. And one is that you have a large truck on the road and suddenly it breaks down and it stopped in a traffic lane or it has to slow down dramatically for somebody else's crashed or the car's broken now. And it gets rear ended by a passenger vehicle. And so that's one scenario that you see a lot. The passenger vehicle hits the rear guard, the rear bumper on the truck, that collapses and the passenger vehicle slides beneath those sharp rear edges of the truck's trailer, slams into the windshield, then it slams into the face of the people in the vehicle and they die. The other one is kind of a T-Bone situation or a situation where the car strikes the truck on the side between the front and back wheels. You see like this: a large truck is pulling a u-turn on a road and a passenger vehicle doesn't see it. It might be night might be early morning and slams right into the side of it. The passenger vehicle is going through a four-way stop, and I saw a video of this, and a large truck runs the stop sign and they collide in a T-Bone scenario. So those are the kind of things that you see from the rear and from the side, typically.

PC: So you mentioned that there are some simple economical fixes to this. In each of those cases, what does that look like? And then we'll get into why it's not happening.

AT: So here was the thing. This became an issue on the radar of federal safety regulators back in the 60's. And that was when Jane Mansfield, the actress and model, was in a rear underride crash in Louisiana and was fatally killed and horribly, horribly injured in that crash. Her driver ran into the rear of a slowed semi-truck. And so federal regulators said oh yeah, we require trucks to have these rear bumpers, these guards, but there's no strength standards for them. And they don't even have to cover the whole rear end of the truck. And they're pretty high off the ground so we could make them bigger. So they covered the whole rear of the truck. We could make them stronger so they would withstand impact and people wouldn't just him and slide under. We have bumper standards for cars and we could make them lower to the ground. So it be harder for cars to slip under them. They did that in 67. They were horrified. They're looking and they said we need to do something. It took until 1998, for them to actually adopt a regulation saying, hey, you have to put on stronger rear guards, rear bumpers, on your trucks. 1998. But even that rule was deeply flawed. They didn't do a lot of strength testing before they adopted that regulation. Experts said, you know, this new standard that you're doing 30 years late is not that great. Go stronger. Do some real world crash testing. And when experts went out and started crashing cars into these new bumpers with his landmark regulation that took 30 years, they found out these ones failed too. You know, there are ways to build these stronger and you should do it. It took the federal government another 20 years to update the standard to something the industry is now using, which generally is a lot better. But the government was behind for 50 years.

PC: So what does it look like today? I'm not really noticing anything out there. I know in past years there was almost this, like a t shape kind of bar that was put in place years ago. And that seemed to be about it. But even then when I looked at that, that didn't look like something that was going to prevent death or harm in any way.

AT: The best of the rear guards that are out there now are very strong. They cover the whole width of the rear of the truck. They’re thoroughly braced and reinforced and they're pretty low to the ground. The best ones exceed federal standards because some of these companies just don't want to be sued for product liability cases where people say, look, you know how to do this better. My loved one was killed in this crash. You should do it better. When it comes to the sides of trucks, all the way back in the 60's, the federal government said oh that's a problem, too. You can get decapitated if you run into the side of a truck in a T-Bone collision and it may not be your fault as a driver. Back in in the 60's, they said yeah, we should do something about that. They didn't do anything about it. In the 90's, they said eh you know, it's just not cost-effective. Now, Congress and the federal safety regulators are looking at it again. Again, the concern is that it's going to cost a lot if we put big, heavy steel guards on the sides of trucks to keep cars from going under. The industry doesn't like this idea. But safety advocates say, hey, look, the federal government needs to go out and test these things. There's companies that make them. There's one trailer company that’s selling them, and see how effective they are and, you know, do some real world testing. And it may be a thing that these trucks should have and would work on the road and would save a lot of lives. But we haven't even gotten to the point where the federal government is doing meaningful tests on them. They've done computer simulations and found that they can stop crashes and up to 50 miles an hour. But they haven't done real world testing so far.

PC: You mentioned a safety feature that would be cost-effective. So there is cost involved in the actual product itself. But as we all know, a lot of the industry, the costs is in the transportation. The cost is in fueling trucks and miles per gallon. Are their setbacks? If you include this type of safety feature or is that really a non-factor in all of this?

AT: No, that's a great question. You know, many years ago, a lot of trucking companies adopted these fiberglass or lightweight aerodynamic barriers that hang down below the trucks between the front and rear wheels. And those are there for aerodynamic. For fuel efficiency. Fuel and weight are everything in the trucking business. Every time you add weight, it increases fuel consumption, reduces fuel efficiency. And every time you add weight to a truck you take away from the amount of payload you can carry. Trucks are capped under the federal rules about 80,000 pounds’ total weight. That's as much as they can weigh. The vehicle, the trailer and everything in it. So when you add weight with a big, strong steel guard to the sides of trucks, you are definitely affecting the economics here. That's an issue. The thing that people who are designing this thing say is we're figuring out ways to make them lighter all the time. And if we add these aerodynamic panels to them, the lightweight plastic panels, we can actually have a benefit here, where we're saving gas in a lot of cases or were neutral on gas and the economic problems are less severe than they've been made out to be.

PC: What do you want viewers to take away from this documentary, America's Dangerous trucks?

AT: That's a great question. You know, I think the thing that is most important to me is to look at how the federal government goes about protecting our lives and to look at this body of work that we've put together tracing this timeline and ask the question, why did it take so long to make these simple moves, take simple safety initiatives at the federal level? What is going wrong with our safety apparatus that a simple new safety regulation takes 30 years to adopt?

PC: Tonight on WGVU Public Television, Frontline Presents America's dangerous Trunks. Award-winning correspondent and producer A.C. Thompson, as always, our pleasure. Thank you so much.

AT: Thanks for having me.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.
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