'These crashes are catastrophic.' The deadly impact of truck underride crashes

Jennifer Tierney doubts her father ever saw the truck that took his life.

The big rig was backing into a field across a dark North Carolina highway one night in 1983.

"My dad had no opportunity to brake," Tierney said.

The car smashed into the tractor-trailer, wedging beneath it and rocketing out of the other side as a tangle of steel.

It finally stopped 40 feet away from the truck.

James Mooney died from massive head injuries, one of hundreds of Americans who die from truck underride deaths.

An investigation by the Cox Media Group Washington News Bureau looked at underride fatalities from the past five years using federal crash statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The numbers show 1,433 fatalities linked to underride collisions from 2011 to 2015, with 299 deaths in 2015.

California, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas each accounted for 25 or more underride deaths.

Crash experts warn those numbers likely give only a partial picture of the fatalities because first responders rarely report all underride deaths.

For the first time, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash-tested a car traveling 35 mph hitting a truck equipped with a side guard.

Video of the collision shows the sedan bouncing off the side guard with the dummy's head protected by the airbag in a survivable crash.

The IIHS ran the same experiment with a car slamming into a truck without a side guard.

The dummy's head violently smashes into the side of the big rig as the car jams beneath the truck in what likely would be a fatal collision.

"These guards can reduce the likelihood the car will go underneath the trailer and therefore save some lives," said David Zuby, chief research officer for IIHS. "We wanted to show it is possible to provide a counter-measure."

Since 1952, the federal government has required underride guards for the back of trucks as protection in rear-end collisions.

It does not have a similar rule for safety systems like the one tested by IIHS, a relatively new device known as an AngelWing side underride guard.

The crash protection "has several complicating factors," said Sean McNally, a spokesman for the American Trucking Association.

Side guards add significant weight and can cause cracks in the frame rails of trailers, creating another safety issue, McNally said.

"Avoiding the crash in the first place is even more effective than trying to manage the impact of a crash," he said.

Since her father's death 33 years ago, Jennifer Tierney has fought to prevent side underride deaths, successfully pushing the federal government to require reflective tape on the side of trucks.

She is convinced underride guards will save lives.

"I'm absolutely delighted beyond belief that these underride crash tests have happened," she said. "It's been a long difficult battle to get something done. These crashes are catastrophic."

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