Aaron Kiefer of Cary has spent years developing equipment that can be bolted to truck trailers to try to stop cars from going underneath.
The goal is to prevent what’s known as underrides, where the hood or trunk of the car goes under the truck, which then comes crashing through the windows into the passenger compartment. In underride crashes, the seatbelts, airbags and crumple zones that manufacturers build into cars and SUVs to protect people aren’t given a chance to work.
Kiefer, an engineer who makes a living doing accident reconstructions, tested the latest version of his underride guard Tuesday with a Nissan Altima pulled at nearly 35 miles per hour into the side of a box trailer.
“Hopefully we’re all going to see the car bounce off the trailer,” he said, as he and a team of volunteers made final preparations at the State Highway Patrol test track south of Raleigh. “But this is R&D …”
Kiefer began designing underride guards after consulting on cases involving fatal crashes that should have been survivable except that the car or SUV went under the truck. He developed something he calls a SafetySkirt, which is designed to prevent side underrides but looks and feels like the trailer skirts already widely used to improve aerodynamics.
On Tuesday, he was testing a new design that combines polyester webbing along the side of the trailer with a series of steel cross braces underneath. The system is designed to be retrofitted to existing truck trailers without adding too much weight.
The test was straightforward: A Toyota Tundra would speed away from the trailer pulling the Altima with a tow rope toward the truck on the other side. The car, a donation that had been damaged in a flood, had a crash test dummy at the wheel, weights on the front wheels to keep it going straight and a remote control device on the roof to trigger the brakes if something went wrong.
Kiefer has done about a dozen of these tests and spent about $100,000 on a project he calls a “labor of love.” He hasn’t persuaded anyone to buy or manufacture his guards, but said he had just heard that Utility Trailer Manufacturing Company had become the first to offer an optional side underride guard on new trailers.
“That’s kind of the way the industry works. They say it can’t be done. They say it’s too expensive. They have all these issues with it. But then they’ll bring out their own product,” he said. “Which is great, because it means there’s movement toward guarding. So I fully expect in a few years new trailers will have these technologies on them.”
Underride crash deaths thought to be under-counted
The decision by Utility to offer an optional side guard is “huge,” said Marianne Karth of Raleigh, who lost two teenage daughters to an underride crash in 2013.
“That sets the stage for others,” Karth said, “because they have to be competitive.”
Karth, who lives in Raleigh, has spent years speaking at conferences, going on TV and radio and pressing members of Congress, government regulators and the trucking industry on the need to prevent underride crashes. About six years ago, she teamed up with Lois Durso, whose 26-year-old daughter was killed in an underride collision near Chicago in 2004.
Karth and Durso and their husbands were among the volunteers who helped Kiefer test his guard Tuesday. Also on hand to watch were about two dozen members of the State Highway Patrol, mostly from the units that regulate trucking or reconstruct crashes.
An estimated 219 people on average were killed each year in underride crashes in the United States in the decade ending in 2017, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.
But underride deaths are likely under-reported, the GAO concluded, because law enforcement agencies don’t have a standard definition for an underride and some crash report forms don’t even have a place for reporting them (the standard form in North Carolina does).
Crash test was over in an instant
Congress addressed the most common type of underride crashes last fall through the infrastructure law, which requires manufacturers to equip trucks and trailers with rear guards strong enough to prevent a car going 35 mph from sliding underneath. The law also directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to study measures to prevent cars from going under the sides of trucks and trailers and, “if warranted, develop performance standards for side underride guards.”
Kiefer hopes his guards will someday be among those that trucking companies buy to retrofit their trailers. Tuesday’s test was an encouraging step.
After a false start (someone left the Altima’s emergency brake on), the test was over in an instant. Sensors at the point of impact indicated the car was going 34.5 mph when it slammed into the side of the trailer and bounced back. The car’s hood folded up and the grill and headlights were smashed. But the windshield remained intact (except for a pre-existing crack), and the test dummy sat in one piece behind the airbag.
“The car would be considered totaled, I’m sure,” Karth said. “But it didn’t pass the windshield. It didn’t flatten the roof. The airbag was triggered, and those things don’t happen when there’s no barrier for the bumper of the car to collide with.”
Within minutes, Kiefer and his crew began dismantling the underride guard, and he noticed some buckling in one of the cross beams. He said he’d like to make those beams stronger in the mid-section so the guard would hold up when hit at 40 or even 45 mph.
But at 35 mph, the guard passed Tuesday’s test.
“All the frontal area of the car absorbed the energy. And the side of the trailer never got anywhere close to the windshield,” he said. “Plenty of survival space for the occupant.”
This story was originally published September 13, 2022 5:58 PM.
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