The Simple Change to Truck Design That Can Save Lives

Truck side guards can help reduce pedestrian and cyclist fatalities. Boston requires them on city-contracted vehicles. New York might follow Boston's lead. Image: Boston Cyclists Union [PDF]
Truck side guards can help reduce pedestrian and cyclist fatalities. Boston requires them on city-contracted vehicles. New York might follow Boston’s lead. Image: Boston Cyclists Union [PDF]
When someone is struck by a turning truck driver in New York City, the worst injuries are typically caused when the vehicle’s back wheels run over the victim. Amar Diarrassouba, Ngozi Agbim, Noshat Nahian, Jessica Dworkin, and Renee Thompson were among the New Yorkers run over by the rear wheels of large trucks in recent years. 

Large trucks designed for highways, with their huge wheels, sweeping turns, and enormous blind spots, are inherently dangerous on crowded city streets, and in the long run the freight system should be designed to eliminate them in populated areas. But in the meantime, improvements to vehicle design can reduce the risks to pedestrians and cyclists. Lives can be saved by installing a side rail or panel between a truck’s wheels that keeps pedestrians and cyclists, if they are struck, from being crushed as the vehicle keeps moving forward.

The de Blasio administration is expected to release a report soon about how this safety feature can be rolled out in New York, but inaction from Albany and Washington threatens to dwarf any city action by keeping large numbers of dangerous trucks legally operating on city streets.

Research from nations that do require side guards shows clear safety benefits. After the United Kingdom began requiring side guards on most new trucks in 1986, there was a 61 percent drop in cyclist fatalities and a 20 percent drop in pedestrian deaths in the types of crashes side guards are designed to mitigate. Researchers at Transport for London say strengthening the UK’s side guard requirements could save the lives of at least two additional pedestrians and cyclists each year in that city alone [PDF]. Side guards have been required on trucks across the European Union since 1989, and are also standard equipment in Japan. They have not yet been mandated in Australia or Canada, which abruptly halted its own study of side guards last year.

Here in the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board last year recommended installing side guards on large trucks, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates truck design, hasn’t yet passed a rule requiring them. NHTSA says it could propose new trailer guard rules, though not necessarily for side guards, by the middle of next year.

In the absence of a federal rule, cities can take immediate steps by installing side guards on municipally-owned trucks. Boston has taken the lead among American cities and New York might soon follow.

A side guard law was enacted in Boston after cyclist deaths, most recently in April, led to action. In response, the city launched a pilot that tested three types of side guards on 16 city vehicles. In July, after the pilot launched, a bike-share cyclist was injured, but not killed, by a turning garbage truck driver whose vehicle was equipped with side guards.

Spurred by the positive results and advocacy from the Boston Cyclists Union [PDF], Mayor Marty Walsh proposed expanding the pilot into a full-fledged side guard ordinance. The law, passed in October, requires side guards on all city-contracted vehicles over 10,000 pounds, or a combined weight of 26,000 pounds for tractor trailers. It also requires additional blind spot mirrors and blind spot awareness decals on the vehicles. A similar ordinance is being considered in adjacent Cambridge [PDF]. With this first-of-its kind law now on the books, the Boston Cyclists Union is encouraging the city to launch a comprehensive evaluation of its new side guard requirement to address a lack of American research on the issue.

Here in New York, the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan calls for side guards to be installed on city fleet vehicles. While that hasn’t happened yet, the administration is moving toward achieving that goal.

In October, the city hosted a Vision Zero “Fleets Safety Forum” featuring public and private fleet operators. One of the presenters at the forum was Dr. Alex Epstein, an engineer with U.S. DOT’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center who worked with Boston on its side guard law and is now providing technical assistance to New York as it formulates its own policy.

“It may seem simple at first glance, but there are quite a few engineering decisions to make,” Epstein said. He has been working with the Department of Citywide Administrative Services to develop technical standards for side guards on different types of vehicles in the city fleet. For example, side guards must be low enough to keep the victim from getting swept beneath the vehicle but high enough to avoid scraping bumps in the road. Epstein also noted that Brazil, for example, has more durable side guards due to the high number of motorcyclists on that nation’s roads, while lighter-weight European designs are more focused on cyclists and pedestrians.

“With New York, my role has been of a technical nature,” Epstein said, “going a bit deeper into some of this effectiveness data, some of the evidence, and some of the technical specifications.”

The de Blasio administration is poised to take that work and release an in-depth report on side guards charting a course of action. At a City Council hearing in April, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said the study would be published by the end of July. Last month, DCAS said the report, which will address both city-owned and private fleets, “is in the midst of being finalized.”

In the meantime, the Department of Sanitation is already testing side guards on a handful of its garbage trucks. “We’ve been concerned that it might impede snow operations, but so far we feel like they’re going to work well,” DSNY Commissioner Kathryn Garcia said at a City Council hearing in October. “We want to see them get through a winter season.”

With its large fleet of trucks in constant operation on city streets, DSNY ranks second among city agencies for pedestrian personal injury claims. There were four claims related to pedestrian deaths filed against DSNY from 2007 to 2014, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer. Garcia expressed hope that side guards could reduce the severity of pedestrian crashes. With guards on the trucks, she said, “they can’t get pulled under our back wheels, so they might get hurt — but they shouldn’t be killed.”

Installing side guards on the city’s own trucks is one thing. The next installment in this series will examine the prospects for requiring them on privately-owned trucks.

An earlier version of this story stated that a Boston bike-share cyclist was killed by a turning truck driver, leading the City of Boston to pursue a side guard pilot. The pilot had already been launched by the time of this crash in July and included the vehicle that struck the cyclist, who was injured, not killed. After the July crash, the city pursued a broader-reaching side guard law.

  • BBnet3000

    There’s really no downside to these. A lot of long haul trucks have them already for aerodynamics, though you don’t see these in New York very often.

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    So the downside is to trucking companies. The cost is borne by them and the benefit is to the alive people. One would think there could be a way to subsidize the lifesaving measure to get them on board. Sort of like how there are free cycling helmet programs and free/subsidized car safety seat programs in some states.

  • SteveVaccaro

    NHTSA is decades behind other countries in terms of requiring features that make vehicles safer for pedestrians and cyclists. The agency seems to largely share the attitude of the industry it “regulates” that the only relevant safety concern is the welfare of the vehicle occupant.

  • BBnet3000

    There are lots of safety features required on vehicles that we require those operating the vehicles to ultimately pay for. For instance, it costs a lot of money to engineer crumple zones into cars to meet safety standards.

    Within fairly recent memory they started requiring guards in the back of trucks to keep cars that rear-end them from running underneath. Unlike those, these have the potential to improve fuel efficiency for a lot of trucks, which is why you see them deployed on long-haul trucks (for which the benefits are greatest) already.

  • ahwr

    Don’t crumple zones protect the occupant of the vehicle, not others? Seems different.

    Rear guards? Protecting drivers who don’t pay attention and rear end trucks is more important than protecting bicyclists and pedestrians who get side swiped by trucks I guess.

  • douglasawillinger

    These guards both serve to protect pedestrians and cyclists while improving aerodynamics and hence fuel economy, and can be easily added to any existing truck. No excuse for the Feds delay.

  • avlowe

    Eyes are the finest form of safety equipment, direct vision (no mirrors no CCTV) and many of the ‘macho trucker’ trucks are totally inappropriate for use on urban streets. UK is moving to glazed side panels – drivers sitting at eye level of pedestrians and cyclists. Eye to eye contact is well established communication which ‘proves’ you have been seen and even delivers a way to say what your next move will be. Take the slogan “Eye Contact = Only Contact” between all road users as a key mantra.

    As well as giving direct eye contact low cabs are reducing injuries to refuse truck crews who can slip and fall when climbing up into a high cab.

    UPS vans have interesting safety details as by-product of making them more efficient for deliveries. Sliding doors (removes dooring hazard for vehicle where driver getting in & out frequently) clear glazing to full depth of side door (see the small person alongside) driver goes from cab to parcels inside van (avoids getting out in to traffic and time taken to go to the back & open door = money = 25% more deliveries per hour).

    City contracts can specify design of vehicles, and also specify same systems as F1 racing cars – wireless speed limiting to safe speeds in defined areas (eg pit lane), legislation can catch up by city can lead by example (intelligent bus speed limiters etc)

  • stephenhadley

    The same argument can be given for front guards which can be more effective in preventing or reducing injuries to vulnerable road users. Shaping and softening the front of trucks is a proven design incorporating low-weight and low-cost. Cities are planning side guards for their fleets that do not protect cars when that protection can be added for low cost. Comments are now open for the NHTSA Rear Guard Rulemaking and the Side Guard Rulemaking should occur in a few months. http://www.underridenetwork.org/why-front-underride-or-underrun-is-important/ .

  • stephenhadley

    Most children die in crashes in cars with trucks. Most side guard crashes are lane change or side swipe with cars and if you have ever driven near a truck they rarely signal and if they do it is hard to see and not long enough to clear lanes. Most victims are in cars, period. Trucking victims have fought for side guards for twenty years and I have never heard a trucking victim ask for bicycles to be excluded from protection. Side guards have existed for years that protect cars in crashes to 30 mph and save lots of kids lives. They are just as cheap as guards that do not work for most victims or crashes. Cities and our governments are spending millions to silence trucking victims and sell these industry partnerships that exist to kill car occupants, victims do not have media or money to get the truth to the people!

  • stephenhadley

    NHTSA has stated truck and trailer frames must be redesigned before side
    guards for car crashes could be installed as the truck frames are too weak to
    withstand crashes. I refer you to a research study by APROSYS in Europe titled
    “APROSYS D224 Demonstration of truck side design improvements”. http://www.underridenetwork.org/side-underride-guards/
    They designed cheap and simple pallet boxes and attached them as side guards to
    trailers. They crash tested them at 40 mph or 62 km/h and they successfully
    protected mid-sized cars in crashes at 90 degrees. The trailer frames were fine.
    Another Engineer in crash test research has claimed that trailer frames would
    fail at 40 mph and above without energy absorption by the guards, stiff guards
    transfer the full force to the trailer frames and thus only energy absorbing
    guards can be used for high speed crashes which goes against government and
    industry preference for cheaper stiff guards. This is where the lie to the
    public is rooted. This government industry move to support cheap side skirts we
    fear will be carried over to defeat more effective protection for the front of
    trucks.

    It has been shown since the early 90’s that by curving the underride guard
    you can divert cars or bikes away from the truck in crashes. Using computer
    design optimum soft shapes have been created to safely divert pedestrians and
    bicycles along with cars in crashes. We believe in very high speed crashes the
    only way to protect cars is to divert them away from the crash. See “Workshop on
    Vulnerable Road User Protection for Heavy Goods Vehicles – Evaluation and
    Concepts for Enhanced Protection” at http://www.underridenetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/AP-SP2-WS-on-VRU-Protection-for-HGV.pdf
    . A benefit in extending noses out from the truck to achieve the curved shape is
    that you have more stroke room to absorb energy with pistons (as an example) and
    the guard can be effective to higher speeds. Extending guards 300 mm or about a foot increases the effective crash
    speed protection to about 60 mph or 96 km/h. The cost benefit for very weak
    cheap side guards will be used by the industry government partnership to block
    these exciting safety breakthroughs.

    We are winning the argument for better guards. We have government regulation rulemakings upcoming for both front and side guards for trucks. In 1992, we had no guard regulation for the rear of trucks for 40 years and guard support was 85% in polling. In response, the Clinton Administration legalized guards already on the roads. This ended our main argument and these guards cannot be proved in studies to have saved a single life. These phony side skirts are fraud and propaganda. The offer the least to defeat what you have already won!

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