10 Investigates: Weak Guards on Semi Trailers Blamed for Hundreds of Deaths Each Year

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UPDATED: Tuesday February 4, 2014 9:06 AM

A federal Department of Transportation agency addresses a national safety issue following a 10 Investigates report that included a recent trip to Washington D.C.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) said in a statement it is "considering" strengthening standards for rear impact guards on semi trailers sometimes called "under-ride bars."  

The guards are designed to keep cars from sliding underneath semi trailers in the event of a rear end impact. They have been criticized as too weak to stop cars at highway speeds.

Columbus resident Bobby Baker tried to help a man who was trapped in a car after a rear guard failed.

"You get a sick feeling in your stomach," Baker said of the accident.

That accident involved Thomas Callaway. Callaway died when his 2005 Ford Taurus slid under a semi near Dayton in 2010.

"As I drove up, I saw a car stuffed under the semi," Baker said.

An expert contacted by 10 Investigates determined Callaway's accident involved rear under-ride.

Callaway was a husband and a father. He was also the victim of a problem that claims an average of at least 250 lives in the United States every year.

The problem involves the design of the rear guards. When they hold, passengers can be saved by their airbags. But they are usually only designed to prevent an accident of up to 30-35 miles per hour. At highway speeds, they often fail.

Nationally-known crash safety expert, Byron Bloch, says deaths could "absolutely" be avoided with stronger rear guards.

Bloch has written technical articles on the subject. He's also testified at Congressional hearings in an effort to spur change.

"Until we (require stronger guards), the price we're paying is needlessly losing family members and friends in these tragedies," Bloch said.

According to NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the problem contributes to death of at least 250 people a year on U.S. highways each year. However, that estimate is conservative and might be as high as 400.

The lack of a specific number is due to reporting standards that do not always identify rear under-ride.

Bloch said most of those deaths could be eliminated by reinforcing the rear guards. He also said that it would help if the federal government required them to extend closer to the ground.

NHTSA could modify federal standards to force trailer manufacturers to make safer guards. Even Canada has stronger rear guard standards than the United States.

"NHTSA is failing miserably," Bloch said. "(NHTSA) should be more proactive."

10 Investigates reporter Paul Aker went to Washington D.C. to get answers from NHTSA and other leaders.

Nobody from NHTSA was willing to do an on camera interview about this story. Instead, NHTSA sent an email response saying it “is aware of the issue."

"The agency is considering regulatory action to improve truck under-ride protection and potential changes to federal safety standards," a NHTSA public affairs representative wrote in an email to 10 Investigates.

Aker also took questions to Ohio Congressman Bob Gibbs. Gibbs sits on the House Transportation Committee.

"We had a hearing (in January) to start talking about the highway transportation bill. And I think this is part of that, so we will look at that and give it serious thought."

Gibbs said it would also be important to consider the effect on stake holders such as trailer manufacturers.

An industry spokesman told 10 Investigates that making the trailers stronger would cost more (estimated at $100-$200 each) and the added weight would make them more expensive to operate.

Still, policy makers seem less than eager to blame additional costs as a rational for sitting idle.

"Obviously, if we can save some lives, that's a good thing," Gibbs said.

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