Cary’s Aaron Kiefer has spent years developing equipment that can be bolted to truck trailers to try and stop cars from going underneath.
The aim is to prevent so-called underruns, 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 accidents, the seat belts, airbags and crumple zones that manufacturers build into cars and SUVs to protect people have no chance of working.
Kiefer, an engineer who makes a living doing crash reconstructions, tested the latest version of his underride protection on Tuesday with a Nissan Altima being pulled nearly 35 miles per hour into the side of a trailer.
“Hopefully we’ll all 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 it’s R&D…”
Kiefer began designing underride guards after consulting cases involving fatal crashes that should have survived except the car or SUV went under the truck. He developed something he calls a SafetySkirt, which is designed to prevent side indents, but looks and feels like the already widely used trailer skirts to improve aerodynamics.
On Tuesday, he was testing a new design that combines polyester straps along the side of the trailer with a series of steel braces below. The system is designed to be retrofitted to existing truck trailers without adding too much weight.
The test was simple: a Toyota Tundra quickly pulled 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 upright and a remote control on the roof to trigger the brakes if something went wrong .
Kiefer has done about a dozen of these tests and spent around $100,000 on a project he calls a “labor of love.” He didn’t persuade anyone to buy or build his guards, but said he just learned that Utility Trailer Manufacturing Company had become the first to offer side underride protection as an option on new trailers.
“It’s kind of how the industry works. They say it’s impossible. They say it’s too expensive. They have all these problems with it. But then they will release their own product,” he said. “Which is great, because it means there is a movement towards custody, so I expect that in a few years, new trailers will be equipped with these technologies.”
Fatalities in Underride crashes are said to be underestimated
Utility’s decision to offer side protection as an option is “huge,” said Marianne Karth of Raleigh, who lost two teenage daughters in a 2013 underride accident.
“It sets the stage for the others,” Karth said, “because they have to be competitive.”
Karth, who lives in Raleigh, has spent years speaking at conferences, appearing on television and radio, and lobbying members of Congress, government regulators and the trucking industry on the need to prevent collisions below. About six years ago, she teamed up with Lois Durso, whose 26-year-old daughter was killed in an underground crash near Chicago in 2004.
Karth and Durso and their husbands were among the volunteers who helped Kiefer test his custody on Tuesday. About two dozen members of the State Highway Patrol were also on hand to watch, mostly from units that regulate trucking or reconstruct accidents.
According to a Government Accountability Office report, an average of 219 people were killed each year in underrun collisions in the United States in the decade ending in 2017.
But embedding deaths are likely underreported, the GAO concluded, because law enforcement doesn’t have a standard definition for an embedding and some accident report forms don’t even have a place for report (the standard form in North Carolina does).
The crash test ended in an instant
Congress tackled the most common type of underride accident last fall through the Infrastructure Act, which requires manufacturers to equip trucks and trailers with rear guards strong enough to prevent a car traveling at 35 mph slipping underneath. The law also directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to study measures to prevent cars from passing under the sides of trucks and trailers and, “if warranted, to develop performance standards for crash guards.” – lateral recesses”.
Kiefer hopes his guards will one day be among those trucking companies buy to upgrade 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 traveling at 34.5 mph when it slammed into the side of the trailer and bounced. The car’s hood folded back and the grille and headlights were shattered. 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 total, I’m sure,” Karth said. “But he didn’t go through the windshield. He didn’t flatten the roof. The airbag has triggered, and those things don’t happen when there’s no barrier that the car’s bumper could collide with.
Within minutes, Kiefer and his team began dismantling the underride guard and he noticed a buckling in one of the cross members. He said he would like to make those beams stronger in the midsection so the guard will hold up when hit at 40 or even 45 mph.
But at 35 mph, the guard passed Tuesday’s test.
“The entire frontal area of the car absorbed the energy. And the side of the trailer never got close to the windshield,” he said. “Lots of survival space for the occupant.”