An 18-wheeler's underride guard or "Mansfield bar" helps prevent a smaller vehicle from traveling underneath a semi-trailer during a rear-end collision. The standard guard design has room for improvement and a mixed success rate, but most would agree that something between a car and a trailer's undercarriage is generally better than nothing. The government seemingly agrees and has required rear underride protection since the early 1950's. But are there similar requirements for side-impact underride guards?
Answer: Side underride guards are not currently required on semi-trailers in the United States.
Each trailer and semitrailer with a gross vehicle weight rating of 4,536 kg (10,000 pounds) or more, and manufactured on or after January 26, 1998, must be equipped with a rear impact guard that meets the requirements of 49 CFR 571.223, in effect at the time the vehicle was manufactured. When the rear impact guard is installed on the trailer or semitrailer, the vehicle must, at a minimum, meet the requirements of 49 CFR 571.224 in effect at the time the vehicle was manufactured.49 CFR § 393.86
As you can see, federal law requires rear underride guards but no mention is made of side underride guards. Here's an important takeaway though: Manufacturers of trailers can still face liability for not providing side underride guards, whether the federal government requires them to or not.
Even if the Federal Government Doesn't Require Side Underride Protection, a Jury May Still Think a Manufacturer Should Have Voluntarily Adopted the Technology
The thing about federal regulations for automobiles is that they are minimum standards that manufacturers are free, even encouraged, to exceed. Companies like Volvo have gone above and beyond to make their vehicles safer (Volvo even invented the "three-point" seat belt in most modern vehicles) even when they're not required to by the government.
Also, when you sue someone for making a dangerous or defective product you are not required to show they violated federal regulations. Indeed, you can argue that their product was dangerous despite their compliance with the law.
The backbone of a product defects case is the understanding that manufacturers are required to take advantage of emerging safety technology in order to keep their products from being unreasonably dangerous.
Now, they aren't required to incur any cost or to price themselves out of the market by implementing safety equipment, but if it's feasible for them to economically employ that equipment then a jury may find that their failure to do so warrants punishment.
Example: Manuel is driving down a street when an 18-wheeler pulls out of a nearby parking lot, blocking all lanes of traffic and cutting off Manuel's car. Manuel tries to stop but can't, and he is decapitated when his vehicle runs under the truck's trailer. Manuel's family sues the truck driver, of course, but the driver only has a million dollars in insurance. The family can show they have many millions of dollars in losses, as Manuel was a highly-paid engineer; thus, they sue the trailer manufacturer as well. The family's attorneys hire a manufacturing specialist who provides solid proof that side underride protection would have saved Manuel's life and would only have cost an additional $500 to add to the $100,000 trailer. A jury finds this argument compelling and forces the manufacturer to pay Manuel's family $2 million on the grounds that the manufacturer should have implemented the life-saving safety equipment.
Why Do Semi-Trailers Need Side Underride Guards?
People often think of underrides in terms of rear-end crashes, but a vehicle can also travel beneath the sides of a commercial trailer with devastating results. When an 18-wheeler pulls across the path of oncoming traffic, for instance, cars could hit and go under its trailer. Fast-moving vehicles might have their roofs sheared off, while those that stop partway under the trailer may be run over by its rear wheels.
An example of the latter that garnered national attention was the sad case of 25-year-old Roya Sadigh. On November 24th, 2004, Sadigh was riding in an eastbound BMW sedan on Interstate 94 in LaPorte County, Indiana. The driver reportedly lost control on the slushy roadway outside Michigan City and the BMW slid from the middle lane toward the left shoulder; according to police the driver over-corrected and the car spun perpendicular to the travel lanes. It then traveled beneath the side of a passing 18-wheeler and was run over by the truck's rear wheels, causing fatal injuries to Ms. Sadigh. Since that tragic incident her mother has campaigned tirelessly for tractor-trailers to have better underride protection—including side guards—required by the government.
Why Aren't Side Underride Guards Required?
The answer to that might be complicated. There's a lot of red tape involved in changing how a whole industry operates, and depending on what's asked of them they may dispute the proposed changes. Side underride guards are no different: Studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) demonstrate the potential of the guards, but trucking lobbyists argue they aren't conclusively effective enough to merit the expense of industry-wide upgrades. Complaints about the guards' weight and its effect on cargo capacity and gas mileage are also common.
As I mentioned at the start, both common sense and years of research suggest a sturdy barrier works far better than nothing at all for keeping a vehicle from traveling underneath a semi-trailer. Europe's underride standards have required rear, side, and front underride guards for many years, but so far the U.S. government's stance seems to be that more research is needed before action can be taken.
Mandatory or Not, Side Underride Guards Could Save Lives
Even if the U.S. doesn't require side guards, prudent trucking companies should take it upon themselves to add some to their fleets. Why? Because if they choose not to and people are hurt and killed in side underrides, the companies' failure to take preventative action could be considered negligent. When a safety countermeasure that could have helped in a crash is widely available, arguably affordable, and demonstrably effective, then a jury is unlikely to look favorably on any company that doesn't make use of it.
A company that weighs public safety against its bottom line and lands on the side of money could face consequences when that decision contributes to severe or fatal injury and a jury finds the rationale of the manufacturer unconvincing. That's rarely a simple matter, however; companies have strong incentives to fight tooth and nail against suggestions of fault, negligence, or misconduct, and going toe-to-toe with them alone can be a daunting task for anyone whose focus should simply be on recovery.
That's where a skilled truck accident attorney can help. The attorneys at Grossman Law Offices have decades of combined experience helping accident victims and their families after underride crashes and other commercial vehicle wrecks. If you were hurt or a loved one was killed in an underride accident and you don't know what to do next, call Grossman Law Offices for a free consultation.