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Marianne Karth and the Battle for Strong Truck Underride Guards

More than 500 people die every year when the automobiles they are in ride under tractor trailer trucks.

Most of those deaths could be prevented if the trucking companies would put sturdy underride guards on the rear, side and front of their trucks.

But for the most part, the trucking companies have refused to do so and the federal government, bending to industry pressure, has refused to require them to do so.

In May 2013, Marianne Karth was driving three of her nine children from North Carolina to Texas.

Two girls – AnnaLeah and Mary – were in the back seat – and one of her sons was in the front seat.

“We got on I-20 in Georgia,” Karth told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “It had been raining. We came upon slow traffic. We learned later that two hours earlier, two miles ahead there had been a fatal crash. And the traffic was still backed up because of that. We slowed down. But a truck behind us was coming up too quickly, not slowing down. He hit us and spun us around and sent us backwards into the back of a tractor trailer in front of us. The back seat went under the truck. My two daughters – AnnaLeah 17 and Mary 13 — were in the back seat. AnnaLeah died instantly and Mary a few days later from her injuries.”

The truck did have a rear guard on it that met federal standards, but still gave way?

“Yes,” Karth said. “There was a rear underride guard and it met the specifications for the current federal standard.

“That federal standard had been put in place in 1998. And the rear guard at the back of the truck that our Crown Vic hit — it met the standard. But it came right off. It was not able to stop the car from going under the truck. It was designed to stop a car. But it was not effective.”

Had it been strong enough to stop the car from going under, your children would have survived?

“I think so. I was in that horrific crash as well. I was in the hospital for a week. If it had been like many crashes where a car rear ends the back of a truck and you run head on into the back of the truck, the people in the front seat die. If we had gone into the back of the truck head on, I wouldn’t be here talking with you today, because I was in the front seat. But my son was in the front seat with me. He had a mild concussion.

“He was discharged. I had a punctured lung, a collapsed lung. I had some crush injuries in my legs. But I was out within a week. I survived because I didn’t go under the truck but they did.”

“After the crash, we became aware of what underride guards were and what they were supposed to do. And we learned that they weren’t doing what they were supposed to do on a regular basis. And the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had been doing research in this area.”

“In 2011, they tested eight major trailer manufacturers and found they could prevent underride if they hit straight onto the middle of the back of the truck. But if  the car crashed on the outer edges of the guard – it’s called 30 percent offset –  where it wasn’t straight head-on, then the guards designed to the current federal standard failed.”

Did your car hit on the side or the middle?

“At the outer edge of the rear.”

Ever since the accident, you have been on a campaign to strengthen truck underride guards.

“Yes. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had done a follow up study in 2013. And a couple of months before our crash, they published the results. And one trailer manufacturer had actually improved their guards and was able to improve results at the outer edge. When we heard that, we realized that the guards could be made stronger, but hadn’t been for years.”

“That got us mad and frustrated. We started learning all we could about it. And we went to some meetings at the Department of Transportation and with our legislators.”

“We were contacted by a group called the Truck Safety Coalition. With their help, we became involved with raising awareness. And then we met with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. We asked that the underride guard standard be strengthened. When we checked back with him the following February to see if anything had been done, we learned that it hadn’t. Our family decided to launch an online petition calling for stronger underride guards along with raising the minimum liability insurance for truckers, which hadn’t been raised for over thirty years. We also asked for electronic login devices.”

“We met with Senator Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) in August 2013, we asked him what he could do to help move it along. He told us that the Secretary of Transportation had the authority to increase the minimum liability insurance. But no secretary has increased the minimum liability protection from the current level of $750,000.”

“After launching the petition, we had over 11,000 people sign it. And we took that petition on May 5, 2014, one year after our crash, to the Department of Transportation and asked them to grant our request. We had a pretty good meeting. The head of NHTSA, David Friedman, told us that they would decide within two months about the underride guards. And that July 2014, I got an email saying they had issued an advanced notice for proposed rulemaking for rear underride guards on trailers. Later, they issued advanced notice for single unit trucks, which we also asked for. That was in July 2015. They said they would consider at a later date our request to add side underride protection. Right now, there is no protection at all. Also, we requested protection on the front of trucks.”

Did the Obama administration eventually do anything to strengthen truck underride guards?

“No.”

Why didn’t they?

“The simple stated answer is that the cost of doing so per life saved is not cost effective. That’s the answer that is given.”

Under pressure from Karth and other victims, five trailer makers – Manac, Vanguard, Wabash, Stoughton and Great Dane – have started putting stronger rear guards on their trucks.

“My husband asked one of the manufacturers –  why did you strengthen your guards? And my husband was told that three of their customers had brought my husband’s letters to them and said –  please do something about this.”

“Stoughton announced that they would put the new guard on all of their new trailers at no added cost or weight. There goes the whole ‘not cost effective’ argument.”

“Stoughton asked me to be part of a press conference at the American Trucking Association Technology Maintenance Council last February in Nashville. I went. As we were going over and getting ready to do it, I found out that lo and behold, they had a retrofit kit. I was quite excited. It’s a great thing to have stronger guards on new trucks. But there are millions of trucks on the road that are just a death waiting to happen.”

“They have a retrofit kit that can be purchased for around $500. It’s good for models that go back ten years.”

Who was the manufacturer of the truck that your car crashed into?

“Great Dane. They have the new guard now.”

The government is not doing anything. But because of pressure from you and your family and others, the industry is changing. Those five manufacturers represent what percentage of trucks on the road?

“I don’t know the exact percentage. I don’t know if all of them are standard or whether it is optional. I know that Stoughton has made their guard standard. Then you have three remaining larger ones — Strick, Utility and Hyundai.”

The Insurance Industry for Highway Safety is releasing this week a new study about side underride guards.

Strong underride guards on the rear of tractor-trailers have proven effective in preventing underride in crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Now, new IIHS tests show how a well-built guard can prevent a passenger vehicle from sliding beneath the side of a semitrailer.

What is the impact of this new study?

“No tractor trailers in the United States have side guards. Some have side skirts. Those side skirts are for fuel efficiency. They would not stop a passenger car. The new rear guards have been tested at 35 miles per hour. Our concern is that since they haven’t been tested at a higher speed, we don’t know if they would stop crashes at higher speeds.”

Underride victims families have drafted legislation to require companies to have underride guards — front, rear and side.

Who will introduce the bill?

“We emailed, called and talked with a lot of people. I went there about a month ago. I was coming out of Union Station and asked someone for direction. And it was Cory Booker and his chief of staff. And they pulled my luggage over to the Hill. I was talking with his chief of staff. As a result of that, we had further conversations with the legislative aide that works on Transportation.

This last week, he hosted a bipartisan discussion. And I would say we had at least twenty legislative offices, including both Republican and Democrat, both House and Senate, that were involved in some initial discussions about this bill.”

And who might introduce it?

“It might be Cory Booker.”

When might it happen?

“Not sure. There was a lot of interest. At the time, I had told them that this report was going to be coming out this week. And the video of the crash test is very convincing. Seeing is believing.”

Obama did nothing. Did you support Trump in this election?

“I grew up Republican. But once we had the truck crash, I started to realize that the Republicans I talked to were more likely to back business interests. Safety took a back seat.”

“We are planning a media event on Capitol Hill. We would like to conduct a crash test on the grounds of the Capitol where legislators can see with their own eyes. It’s very convincing. If we can’t do it, we will show the video of it.”

How many underride deaths are there a year?

“593. But they are undercounted.”

“The crash was on May 4, 2013. AnnaLeah died that day. She died instantly at the scene. Mary had severe injuries. She held on to the early morning of May 8 — that’s today.”

You have been campaigning now for four years. What are your thoughts about those four years?

“I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t been able to write about it, preserve their memories. It’s a complicated grief. On top of being traumatic and unexpected, when you find out it could have been prevented, but it wasn’t, that somebody could have done something that might have made it turn out differently — that leads to frustration and anger. And then you find out that they still haven’t done anything about it and you hear all of the excuses. But there are solutions out there. We shouldn’t be limited by excuses. It makes it very hard to come to peace. Advocating for safer trucks will never bring AnnaLeah and Mary back. But I know it will prevent many other families from going through what we will live with for the rest of our lives.”

“That drives me to be bold, stubborn, and not be willing to compromise. Compromise has been going on for decades. That enables me to have the energy and the strength to stand firm and call for this change to happen.”

[For the complete Interview with Marianne Karth, see 31 Corporate Crime Reporter 20(12), print edition only.]

 

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