NHTSA safety committee eyes trailer underride retrofit requirement

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Updated Mar 14, 2024

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Advisory Committee on Underride Protection (ACUP), a group tasked with providing advice and recommendations to the Secretary of Transportation on safety regulations to reduce underride crashes and fatalities related to underride crashes, will recommend to Congress that any trailer built in the last quarter century meet Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) ToughGuard standards. 

The group met on Wednesday for the second time this year and passed a resolution that the ACUP will include in its congressional report, and suggest that the Department of Transportation initiate rulemaking, a recommendation that all trailers built since 1998 that have not received the IIHS ToughGuard award be retrofitted with "proven reinforcement devices..." that "at a minimum, should be tested and proven to mitigate passenger compartment intrusion and create crash compatibility consistent with a ToughGuard awarded rear impact guard when attached to a minimally compliant FMVSS 223 rear impact guard."

It's a "step that can be taken today to prevent underride crashes on hundreds of thousands if not millions of trailers," said committee member Aaron Kiefer, who represents motor vehicle crash investigators.

[Related: Side underride guards the most expensive mandate in trucking history?]

Doug Smith, who represents motor carriers in the group, noted that 1998 was "too far to go back," adding that exceeds the average lifecycle of a trailer. 

"Yeah, they're out there but they're a very small percentage," he said, adding trailers upward of 25 years old are mostly used for storage and retrofitting those trailers would cost more than the trailer was worth. 

Harry Adler, who represents truck safety organizations, said that older trailers have seen more wear and tear regardless of how they are used toward the end of their lifecycle, adding even if used for storage there exists the possibility they will moved, and he wanted them subject to the higher safety standard. 

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The group also elected to include in its report a recommendation that regulates single unit trucks with the same rear impact guard standards that currently only apply to trailers, also that single unit trucks adhere to conspicuity standards. 

The ToughGuard award was introduced in 2017. Trailers that pass three tests – a crash with the full width of the underride guard; a crash at 50% overlap; and a crash at 30% overlap – receive the award, meaning there is no underride in any of the crashes. In each of the tests, a midsize car traveling 35 mph is crashed into the back of a parked semitrailer. Nine North American trailer manufacturers, including the eight largest, have earned the ToughGuard award. 

The group's meeting Wednesday focused mostly on the trailer's rear and it suggested no action with regard to side underride. Nearly a year ago, NHTSA published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) to “assess the feasibility, benefits, costs and other impacts of installing side underride guards on trailers and semitrailers.”

NHTSA estimates an industry-wide side underride mandate would save 17 lives and prevent 69 injuries annually but the financial burdon would be heavy: upwards of $1.2 billion each year. Additionally, with "a weight increase of 450 to 800 pounds per trailer, requiring side underride guards is estimated to increase lifetime fuel costs for new trailers entering the fleet each year by approximately" $200 million to $450 million, the NHTSA wrote in its ANPRM.

DOT's own report on trailer side underride guards concludes that "alternative approaches" to mitigating side underride crashes make more sense, as the mandate would simply cost more than it would benefit.

[Related: Side-underride guard mandate: Rail disaster waiting to happen?]

Jason Cannon has written about trucking and transportation for more than a decade and serves as Chief Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. A Class A CDL holder, Jason is a graduate of the Porsche Sport Driving School, an honorary Duckmaster at The Peabody in Memphis, Tennessee, and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Reach him at [email protected].