You'll never look at tractor-trailers the same way again

by: Jim Strickland Updated:

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ATLANTA - A Channel 2 consumer investigation found that a crucial safety device installed on the big rigs trucks often fails at the worst possible time.

The device is the underride guard, a metal bar which acts as a semi trailer's rear bumper. The bar is designed to stop a car from sliding under the truck during a rear-impact collision.  

Consumer investigator Jim Strickland discovered the bars' design standards are dated, and many times their failures are deadly.

"We saw the two police cars pulling up and we knew exactly what to expect," recalled Ken Palazzo of Forsyth County.

His 20-year-old son Kyle hadn't shown up for dinner with his fiancé. The wedding was in three months.  Kyle's death in a 2009 underride crash was instantaneous.

"You immediately go into shock. You can't handle that kind of information," said Palazzo of the moment he was notified.

The truck's underride guard was supposed to stop the car enough so the airbag in Kyle's Honda could save him.  Photos show the guard buckled at impact.

A federal study says over a two-year span, Kyle's was one of 724 rear-end crash deaths involving a car and a semi.  Despite the guards, underride was a factor 70 percent of the time.

Crash records show six Georgians were killed between 2010 and 2012 in cars pinned under the backs of big trucks. 

Strickland traveled to Indianapolis to interview crash reconstructionist and underride expert Bruce Enz.

"Rear underride guards, do they work?" Strickland asked.

"I mean, they work to an extent, but they are not as effective as they should be at all," said Enz. "They just don't have enough stopping power."

Enz said the front of a modern car rides much lower to the ground to save fuel. Federal standards for for underride guards have been in place without updating since 1998. The rules are based on stress tests, not crash tests, and state a guard must ride no higher than 22 inches from the ground. 

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety petitioned federal safety regulators to update the rules after a series of crash tests in 2010. The weakest-performing underride guard was from Hyundai.  

Its bolts snapped off and the guard collapsed when hit in the center at 35 miles per hour by a 2010 Chevloret Malibu test vehicle.  The trailer Kyle Palazzo hit was a Hyundai.  Its guard also folded and failed, but conformed to the 1998 standard. 

A second series of crash tests in 2012 showed great improvement after a Hyundai redesign. Calls and emails to the company were not answered. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has taken no action to update the standards.

Strickland found maintenance is another issue.  He drove all over metro interstates, and easily found guards mangled, weakened with rust and simply broken.

Enz has also designed a guard to protect against underriding the side of a tractor- trailer. 

Georgia crash reports Strickland obtained show side underride crashes kill far more Georgians than rear underride wrecks.

Edith Fowler lost her son Mark Johnson is such a crash at the intersection of Highway 316 and Hurricane Trail in Gwinnett County.

A truck made an improper turn into his path. 

"This huge, what? Eighteen wheeler?   And he was dead, just like that," said Fowler.   

"I've got Mark's six children driving all the time. I'd love to see this sort of thing protect them," said Fowler of the side guards.

Enz says the added weight of his invention -- 950 pounds -- is keeping it from the highways.  He believes it will take a federal mandate.

"It seems to be that many times the passing of more effective laws is based upon how many die. That's just the sad truth," said Enz.          


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