Getting the federal government to require the trucking industry to accept a new safety requirement can be challenging. The executive branch may not be interested. Congress may not see passing a new law as a priority, and industry lobbyists will line up against it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the end of the story.
As we know from civics class, the courts are the third branch of state and federal government. Lawsuits can also take years, and mixed judgments will blunt the push for safer commercial trucks. But while politicians and regulators may look elsewhere while dangerous trucks needlessly take lives, juries and judges may pay attention.
Federal Government Isn’t Taking Action to Prevent Underride Accidents
Federal safety experts aren’t recommending a mandate for “underride guards” for new commercial vehicles, according to Streetsblog USA. Underride guards are barriers on the side of trucks or trailers that prevent a car, pedestrian, bicyclist, or motorcyclist from being run over by the rear tires.
They cite a PBS Frontline/ProPublica documentary as stating they’re not considering the guards’ benefits in preventing the deaths of pedestrians and cyclists while undercounting the number of vehicle occupants killed in these crashes.
Federal law requires guards on the rear of trailers. Guards on the sides would cost about $3,000 per vehicle, according to trucking industry lobbyists, and the additional weight would make commercial trucks less fuel efficient.
What’s the Value of a Life Not Lost or a Prevented Injury?
Mandating side underride guards could save about 217 lives yearly (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claims the figure would be 17), predicts Matthew Brumbelow of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The documentary claims the federal government was likely to approve a mandate until the trucking industry successfully took the saved lives of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists out of the cost-benefit analysis.
Brumbelow estimates that about 105 bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorcyclists are killed yearly after being swept under a truck’s or trailer’s rear wheels. At least 47 countries require side underride guards, and they have been standard on large Japanese trucks since 1979.
An issue facing safety proponents is the need for more information. Only 17 states have a field in their accident reports for underride accidents. The rest face the chicken and the egg problem. If there’s no data to show how common underride accidents are, it’s hard to justify their inclusion in accident reports and state government accident analysis because there’s little evidence to show how often they happen. After all, police don’t include them on accident reports.
If the Costs of Going Without are High Enough, More Side Underride Guards Will Be Used
Personal injury cases typically use negligence as a legal theory. Since a defendant trucking company owes others using roads and highways a duty of using reasonably safe trucks, if that duty or obligation isn’t met and someone’s injured or killed. As a result, the company may be held liable for the accident and ordered to pay the plaintiff damages.
If there are enough successful cases and verdicts are costly, insurance companies may require underride guards for policyholders or charge higher premiums to those whose trucks lack them. If trucking companies have a hard or expensive time doing business without underride guards, they may be installed without a government mandate.
A plaintiff has the burden of proving that it’s more likely than not that the trucking company’s negligent actions, or failures to act, caused the accident and the resulting injuries or deaths. There’s no multi-level, politicized, years-long process that results in regulations. There are no political backroom deals or lobbyists threatening retaliation or holding out the prospect of financial donations like the legislative process. It’s up to the judge and jury.
Plaintiffs have had successful lawsuits involving the lack of underride guards. A New Mexico truck underride accident in 2015 took the life of a 16-year-old, and his family sued the truck trailer manufacturer. A jury found in their favor and ordered the company to pay them $42 million, according to WUSA.
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If you or a loved one are injured or killed in an accident with a commercial truck, and you want to learn about the law, how it may apply in your situation, and how we can help you obtain compensation, call The Fleck Firm at 270-446-7000 today.