If you have ever followed a tractor trailer, you should have noticed a bar hanging below the cargo hold. This bar, also known as a rear impact guard, is a requirement to protect drivers and passengers sharing the road in passenger vehicles. I notice them daily on my commute down Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk, near the port at NIT as lots of big rigs use Terminal Boulevard to bring containers to ships.
The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards ("FMVSS") 223 and 224 set forth minimum requirements for the geometry, configuration, strength, and energy absorption capability of rear impact guards on full and semi-trailers over 10,000 pounds Gross Vehicle Weight manufactured on or after January 26, 1998. Prior to that, the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association ("TTMA") issued similar, but strictly voluntary recommendations. Between January 1, 1952 and January 25, 1998, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations ("FMSCR") also mandated rear impact guards. While the FMCSR regulations applied to a wider range of vehicles, the regulations allowed substantially smaller guards and imposed no strength testing of installed guards.
During an evaluation of rear impact guards for truck trailers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA") stated that the primary objective of a rear impact guard is to prevent the especially hazardous crash configuration known as underride with passenger compartment intrusion ("PCI"). This crash configuration describes the scenario where the front of a passenger vehicle collides with the rear of a truck trailer. Because the rigid structures in the front end of a small passenger car are often less than thirty inches off of the ground while the bed of a truck trailer is over forty-five inches off of the ground, the passenger vehicle can underride the trailer, where the bed of the trailer intrudes into the occupant compartment above and behind the hood of the passenger vehicle. Often, this type of collision results in serious blows to the head, open or closed head injuries, brain and spinal cord injuries, or death.
In order to protect against underride with PCI, it is important that rear impact guards that not only meet structural standards, but are installed at the correct height. The guards must be low enough to guarantee engagement with the rigid structures of even the smallest passenger cars and wide enough to assure complete contact in off-center collisions. Now, these bars also include high visibility tape to reduce nighttime rear impacts.
The new regulations have greatly reduced fatalities in underride collisions with PCI, but rear-end collisions may still leave accident victims with serious injuries. Like in most rear-end collisions, the driver following the truck will often be presumed to be at least partially at fault. For example, in Virginia, the trucking company will typically blame the driver for rear-ending the truck. However, passengers that have sustained serious injuries from the crash should still be able to recover against the trucking company and should look to see whether the truck involved was covered by the minimum liability insurance (e.g., $750,000 or more depending on the type of truck and cargo) as required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.