During a collision between a passenger car and commercial truck, the height of the truck’s trailer often allows it to smash through the car’s windows and into the passenger compartment.

Seatbelts, airbags, and crumple zones are useless in such “underride” crashes, often leading to horrendous injuries and death. A recent federal study of the problem concluded its best estimate of the scale of the problem clearly doesn’t match the actual, unknown death toll.

The underestimated dangers of big trucks

Due to their weights and payloads, trucks on the open highway can be catastrophically dangerous objects, especially for the passenger cars traveling alongside them.

Commonly weighing 20 to 30 times as much as a family car, trucks at highway speeds can cause startling damage. Also, the loads they carry may include stonework, glass, explosives and toxic chemicals, and iron and steel girders and equipment, magnifying the danger they pose to cars.

Because these dangers are so vivid, it’s easy to forget the simple geometry of trucks itself is a common killer.

The GAO weighsofficialinformation on underrides

In April 2019, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its report on underride guards, the metal structures on the backs of trucks nominally designed to prevent catastrophic invasions of the passenger space.

The GAO’s own count of 219 annual deaths, on average, from underrides is likely too low, the agency concluded. States, counties and municipalities differ in their data practices when it comes to the causes of traffic deaths.

Obstacles to and consequences of underreporting

The definition of an “underride” crash is not uniform or standardized. Some states don’t even include the category in their crash forms. The GAO also reports that officers on the scene of crash often haven’t been trained to correctly recognize an underride crash.

For these reasons, the GAO can’t rely on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which relies on state and local accident reports.

Some have argued that the GAO report’s findings emphasize the importance of independent and critical investigation of crashes by qualified experts. Officials with spotty methods of recognizing underrides aren’t positioned to hold trucking companies accountable for how well company safety measures prevent underrides or minimize the injuries or deaths they cause.

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