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'Underrides are so underreported': Transportation Sec. Buttigieg looking into data-based truck safety changes

Part of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act focuses on truck safety, which Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg told FOCUS needs improvement.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It is likely the most dangerous thing you do every day – driving or riding on roads and highways.

In 2020, more than 100 people a day died on roadways in the U.S. according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

In 2021, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a $1.2 trillion investment.

Through the U.S. Department of Transportation, $7.4 million has been allocated to help fund three railroad improvement projects to the Central Kentucky Lines, including a new facility near Frankfort to off-load freight and transfer it to trucks. 

The funding is supposed to help keep the national supply chain moving with trucks carrying a lot of the load.

One section of the bill is focused on improving truck safety, specifically ‘underride’ crashes. That is when a passenger car slides under a semitrailer.

“Every action that we take is evidence-based and data-based,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said to our FOCUS investigative team.

A report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office on underride crashes in 2019, suggested that those crashes have likely been under-reported, and recommended that better data is needed to help determine the effectiveness of side underride guards on trucks. 

For nearly two decades Lois Durso has made underride protection her mission and has a website stopunderrrides.org. She lost her daughter, Roya, who was the front passenger in a car when it slid under the side of a semi tractor-trailer in Indiana the night before Thanksgiving 2004.

“My daughter's was an underride crash, but it was not recorded as an underride crash,” Durso told us.

RELATED: Side guards on trucks may become required, depends on research results

Although many tests, with and without side guards, have been conducted at various speeds, Buttigieg will weigh recommendations by an "Advisory Committee on Underride Protection." It will be a 20-member committee, including law enforcement, families of underride crash victims, and one of the biggest critics of mandating side guards, a faction of the truck lobby, the "Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association."

“Show me what happens when a car driving 60 miles an hour hit one of the side underride guards that are currently available on the market,” Collin Long, The Owner-Operator of Independent Driver's Association Government Affairs Director said.

They want more proof as well as more accurate and consistent data.

“One of our big frustrations with the enforcement of federal regulations like this is that certain law enforcement agencies in certain states have different interpretations or different practices and it leads to unreliable data,” Long said.

According to Kentucky State Police, from 2017 to June 13 of this year, 283 people have been killed and another 2,686 were injured in crashes involving underrides. On average that's a person every day in the Commonwealth. But KSP says that doesn't mean the underride necessarily caused the injury or the death.

Meanwhile, Indiana State Police said the standard crash report utilized by law enforcement does not offer an option to capture that specific crash factor.

RELATED: Rear underridge guards on trucks now more scrutinized: Companies, drivers face hefty fines

“Underrides are so underreported,” Durso said.

Another data deficiency on rear underride guards.

Trailers with rear protection rusted and falling apart are not allowed to be on the road, and inspection of rear guards is now required.

“Our bottom line is always safety,” Buttigieg said.

Data our FOCUS team analyzed from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) shows in the first five months of this year inspectors nationwide cited rear guard violations 894 times. However, there were only six citations issued for "no or improper rear-end protection", but none of the six resulted in trucks being taken out of service.

In Kentucky, so far this year, there have been 18 rear guard violations but only one truck was ordered off the road.

“We need to consider any measure that can save lives on the road has to be evidence-based, has to be reasonable...we've got to recognize the roadway safety deaths situation in this country as the crisis that it is and take action,” Buttigieg said.

Durso now has more confidence that will include side underride guards, not far down the road.

“It's in his hands, he can do it,” Durso said.

Durso's crusade continues. She says she'll be in Washington D.C. next week for round table discussions on truck safety, and underrides in particular.

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