Mary and AnnaLeah Karth in January 2013.

Mary and AnnaLeah Karth in January 2013.

Truck underride crashes are among the most horrific collisions on the road.

The gruesome tragedies typically involve a car sliding under the back or side of a tractor-trailer. They have taken the lives of victims ranging from the actress Jayne Mansfield in 1967 to a pair of North Carolina teenagers on their way to their siblings’ college graduation ceremonies in 2013. Those killed often suffer severe head trauma – or even are scalped or decapitated — when a truck’s frame penetrates an auto’s passenger compartment.

For decades, the federal government has required rear impact guards on many larger trucks. Yet federal estimates of the death toll from truck underride crashes have held steady at about 200 a year, and critics say the real figure actually is higher.

Safety advocates were encouraged two years ago when federal authorities — prodded by petitions from consumer groups and the mother of the North Carolina teens – announced that they would look into strengthening regulations for protective steel bars on the backs of trucks. But the activists were dismayed when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration disclosed its proposal last December.

While a American Trucking Associations spokesman expressed optimism that NHTSA’s proposed rule “will be a step forward for highway safety,” the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which has conducted crash tests and other research on the issue, said the plan “misses an opportunity to substantially improve” underride protection.

Scene of the May 2013 crash that took the lives of teenagers Mary and AnnaLeah Karth.

Scene of the May 2013 crash that took the lives of teenagers Mary and AnnaLeah Karth.

NHTSA’s proposal would require that rear impact guards be strong enough not to collapse, yet able to absorb enough energy, to protect motorists who squarely strike the back of a truck at up to 35 miles per hour. That’s an increase of only 5 mph from the current U.S. standard, and what Canada has had since 2007.

Given that more than 90 percent of new semi-trailers sold in the U.S. already comply with the Canadian standard, NHTSA has said its proposal would likely save only one life and prevent only three serious injuries a year, while adding $229 to the cost of each new truck. NHTSA officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

“Sadly, their proposal is to replace a 20-year-old standard with a 10-year-old standard. What they’re doing is essentially just copying the Canadian standard,” said John Lannen, executive director of the Virginia-based Truck Safety Coalition. He said there are other technical options NHTSA could have proposed that “are vastly superior to the standards that they put out.”

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For starters, Insurance Institute researchers say, the federal proposal should require that impact guards – typically, two vertical steel bars extending down from the truck frame to support a horizontal bar slightly less than two feet from the ground — be strengthened near their corners. That’s because vehicles that strike close to the edge of a truck, in what engineers refer to as offset crashes, are more likely to suffer fatal passenger compartment intrusions.

Some trucking companies already are voluntarily adding that extra protection even as industry associations are supporting the NHTSA proposal. Four of the eight largest U.S. truck trailer manufacturers — Manac, Wabash, Vanguard and Stoughton – in recent months have proven to offer adequate protection in offset crash tests, according to a senior research engineer with the Insurance Institute, Matthew Brumbelow.

Wabash National Corp. President Dick Giromini says his company’s new guards add $350 to the price of a trailer, but that buyers have included J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc., which ordered 4,000 trailers with its RIG-16 system. “Safety is our number one value and priority,” Giromini said in an e-mail.

The Insurance Institute also wants NHTSA to require underride guards on some types of single-unit trucks (those that don’t pull a trailer, such as dump trucks and delivery trucks) that aren’t currently required to have them. In addition, the organization favors side guards installed to help prevent bicycles and pedestrians from sliding under garbage trucks, tractor-trailers and other behemoths as they make blind turns.

A guard designed to reduce deadly underride crashes made by truck trailer manufacturer Wabash National.

A guard designed to reduce deadly underride crashes made by truck trailer manufacturer Wabash National.

“It is something a lot of cities are looking at,” Brumbelow said. He noted that New York and Boston have adopted ordinances in the past two years requiring new side guard protections on municipal truck fleets.

The NHTSA approach is fueled, safety advocates say, by the Reagan era requirement that economic benefits outweigh the costs of safety rules.

“The craziness of government is that you have to put lives on one side of the scale, and on the other side, dollars,” said vehicle safety advocate Louis V. Lombardo, a former NHTSA staffer.

What’s more, safety advocates say federal officials, because of poor data, probably undercount the portion of the nation’s nearly 4,000 truck-related deaths annually that are due to underride collisions.

Most jurisdictions, for example, lack a check-off box for underride on police reports. As a result, Brumbelow complained, NHTSA researchers have called people connected with a crash two years later and relied on their fuzzy memories to determine whether a fatality was underride-related.

In one IIHS truck crash study that Brumbelow cited, researchers found photographic evidence of underride in 23 collisions. Yet only eight had been coded as underride crashes by NHTSA. By undercounting deaths, Brumbelow says, they underestimate the benefits.

An underride crash in Georgia in May 2013 took the lives of North Carolina sisters AnnaLeah Karth, 17, and Mary Karth, 13. Marianne Karth, a mother of nine, was heading to Texas with AnnaLeah, Mary and one of their brothers to attend the college graduations of four of their older siblings when her blue Crown Victoria was struck from behind by a tractor-trailer.

Actress Jayne Mansfield, who was killed in an underride crash in 1967 after performing at a Mississippi nightclub. (Getty Images)

Actress Jayne Mansfield, who was killed in an underride crash in 1967 after performing at a Mississippi nightclub. (Getty Images)

The impact, the police report said, spun her car around, and it was struck again by the same truck and pushed, rear-end first, toward another. The guard bar on the back of the second trailer-truck failed to prevent her sedan from sliding under, and the two teens in the back seat were killed.

Karth, who lives in Rocky Mount, N.C., has since devoted herself to underride safety. She and her husband, Jerry, have met repeatedly with safety organizations and federal highway officials. They also have launched petition drives and posted emotional videos packed with photos of daughters AnnaLeah and Mary, together with their stuffed animals.

“The grief is the fuel which lights the fire under me to fight this battle,” Marianne Karth said. Karth expressed frustration over “knowing that this is a decades-old problem, that it could have been addressed more adequately a long time ago.”

She calls NHTSA’s proposed rule “not really much of an improvement,” faulting it for, among other things, failing to require sideguards or protection against front override collisions. Karth is urging safety advocates and industry groups to negotiate a consensus on reforms that can be presented to NHTSA for action. To that end, the Karths and the Insurance Institute co-hosted a forum last month that drew nearly 100 representatives of truck-trailer manufacturers, government agencies, safety research and victims’ groups.

It’s uncertain when, or even if, NHTSA will issue a final rule. And the agency is only in a preliminary stage of considering enhanced underride protection for single-unit trucks.

The American Trucking Associations, a leading industry trade group, says it is satisfied with the Canadian-style rear guard upgrade NHTSA has proposed.

Ted Scott, the ATA’s director of engineering, questioned the idea of strengthening guards to prevent injuries at speeds exceeding 35 mph. “If you make the trailer capable of stopping anything,” he said, “now you’re running into a brick wall so you’re going to die anyway.”

In mid-May, the Truck Trailers Manufacturers Association sent NHTSA a letter that argued against broader safety reforms. The letter said the association agreed with past federal assessments that sideguards would not make economic sense, and it further asserted that the guards had “many unresolved technological challenges.”

Brumbelow said he thinks NHTSA officials are likely to adopt a final rule that “essentially adopts the Canadian standard” for rear impact guards “because there’s no pushback” from the industry against doing that.