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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Search Continues for Tractor-Trailer Driver that Fled the Scene of Deadly Side Underride Crash

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One of the most dangerous types of truck accidents is a truck underride collision — when a passenger vehicle strikes a commercial truck and then slides underneath the body of truck. In many cases, these are gruesome collisions that result in decapitation, quadriplegia, and death.

Authorities have identified the man killed Saturday in a collision with a tractor-trailer on Interstate 15 near Great Falls International Airport, while the semi driver is still missing.

According to the Montana Highway Patrol, the driver of the tractor-trailer, hauling two-by-four lumber, was traveling southbound. To reach a weigh station on the northbound side of the interstate, he crossed the median in an authorized vehicle-only crossing, pulling in front of a northbound Dodge Caravan. Despite the driver of the van moving to the passing lane of the interstate, he still made contact with the right rear of the trailer. After the collision, the semi driver continued across the interstate to the weigh station, stopped, then left the scene traveling northbound, according to reports. Authorities said the side undercarriage crash killed the driver of the van; he was pronounced dead at the scene.

Police are looking for the tractor-trailer and its driver, and said there should be damage to the right side of the trailer. “I don’t know how you can’t feel a hit like that,” said a state trooper. “Because from the front bumper (of the van), it was pushed all the way to the windshield.”

Many people don’t know that the death of actress Jayne Mansfield in 1967 was due to an underride crash. Mansfield was killed when her car encountered fog that prevented her driver from seeing a semi on the road ahead of them. The car crashed into the back of the semi, killing her and two other adults in the car instantly. Three of Mansfield’s children, who were in the backseat, survived the accident. Safety experts believe Mansfield’s death could have been prevented if the trailer had been equipped with a rear underride guard.

Although the crash spurred immediate discussions over rear underride protection on semi-trucks, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) didn’t mandated rear guards until 1998. Now, some of those guards are outdated. They are made of cheap material, and as a result provide no barrier against a vehicle passing beneath a truck. Some companies are exploiting the outdated regulations to cut corners and keep unsafe vehicles on the road.

Side underride guards are not required by law, despite the fact that side underride crashes involving tractor-trailers and passenger vehicles kill about 200 motorists every year in the U.S., according to the NHTSA. The agency has considered mandating upgrades to existing guards as well as the installation of side underride guards, yet proposed measures over the years have been repeatedly defeated. Consequently, it recommends that all new semi-truck trailers have side underride guards installed, however, this is a recommendation, which means that truck manufacturers are by law free to ignore the recommendation. And, they do.

Why, if legislators know that side underride crashes claim hundreds of lives every year, won’t they act? Safety advocates say it’s due to the substantial amount of money that the transportation industry donates to key lawmakers who regulate transportation.

Trucking lobbyists, such as the Truck Trailer Manufacturer Association, claim such requirements would be costly to implement; to upgrade existing rear guards alone could cost up to $2,000. They also state that the underride guards are technically challenging to install and added weight could reduce their profits due to decreasing the amount of goods that the trucks could carry due to weight limits. Yet, in a May 2015 press release, the American Trucking Associations announced that trucking industry revenues topped $700 billion for the first time in 2014. Doesn’t it seem hard to believe that the trucking industry can’t afford adequate underride guards on its trucks?

David Zuby, chief research officer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), said in a press release that the industry would also benefit from stronger underride guards in the event of a crash because the underride guard is often the only part of the trailer requiring repairs. This would help helping mitigate costs from the crash. “If trailer manufacturers can make guards that do a better job of protecting passenger vehicle occupants while also promising lower repair costs for their customers, that’s a win-win,” Zuby said.

How many drivers have to die for the industry to recognize this safety improvement as being worthwhile for everyone?

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.