Coalition demands investigation into DOT’s handling of underride research

September 15, 2023

Mark Schremmer


Prompted by an episode of the PBS documentary series “Frontline,” the Truck Safety Coalition is calling for an investigation into whether U.S. Department of Transportation officials violated ethics rules regarding research on underride crashes.

The safety coalition wrote to the DOT Office of Inspector General on Thursday, Sept. 14, asking it to investigate possible “misconduct and abuse, breached ethics rules and agency standards of conduct, and violated federal law when they coordinated with lobbyists from the trucking industry to suppress taxpayer-financed research on improving public safety in underride crashes with commercial freight trucks.”

Underride crashes most commonly occur when a car slides underneath a tractor-trailer. Regulations already require rear underride guards, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering regulations for side underride guards.

Frontline and ProPublica reported that in 2019 and 2020, lobbyists for the American Trucking Associations directed DOT officials to censor any mention of the word “regulation” and struck entire sections of a draft of a government report about technology to prevent underride crashes. ATA has long opposed any attempts to mandate side underride guards.

The Frontline and ProPublica reports led the Truck Safety Coalition to demand an investigation.

“Underride crashes are devastating and horrifically violent,” the coalition wrote in the letter. “They are also preventable. Requirements for side underride guards have been under consideration at DOT since 1969, yet marginal progress has occurred since that time. This has come at an incredible cost.”

Opposing view

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents small-business truckers, opposes regulations to require side underride guards due to operational concerns and the cost.

NHTSA’s research in its advance notice of proposed rulemaking indicated that a side underride requirement would save 17.2 lives and 69 serious injuries annually while costing as much as $1.2 billion each year.

“(The) research once again indicates there is absolutely no reason to mandate side underride guards on commercial trucks,” OOIDA President Todd Spencer said. “The rush to mandate every gadget marketed as a safety device over the objections of professional drivers is a major reason crash rates continue to rise. We will not see improvements in highway safety until lawmakers and federal regulators prioritize the expertise of professional drivers above other interest groups.”

Truck drivers also have raised concerns about side underride guards causing trucks to get stuck on railroad tracks.

“There are 162,827 public railroad crossings,” said OOIDA Board Member Doug Smith, who is on NHTSA’s Advisory Committee on Underride Protections. “There are 1,160 low-clearance railroad crossings, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. I’m pretty sure there is no one else on this committee who has experienced the sheer terror of being grounded on a railroad crossing.” LL