Life-Saving Truck Design Fix Sidelined By Federal Inaction

This is the second post in a series about safety features for large vehicles. Part one examined the case for truck side guards and New York City’s attempt to require them for its fleet.

Large trucks operating in NYC are not required to have side guards to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: dos82/Flickr

American cities are beginning to take the lead on requiring side guards on large trucks in municipal fleets. That’s a good first step toward saving lives, but without addressing privately-owned vehicles, city streets will not be safe from trucks that tend to crush people beneath the rear wheels after impact. The federal government continues to drag its feet, however, and without a national mandate, the prospects for meaningful action from Albany look slim.

Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended installing side guards on all large trucks, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates truck design, has yet to pass a rule requiring them. NHTSA says it might begin soliciting input on new trailer guard rules by the middle of next year. Traditionally, the agency has focused on guards for the back end of trucks, which protect car occupants in rear-end collisions. There’s no guarantee that any progress toward new rules next year will include side guards.

In the absence of federal rules requiring side guards for trucks, state and local legislators have taken tentative steps toward addressing the problem. Albany’s previous attempts at similar legislation don’t inspire confidence, however. A recently enacted state law mandates “crossover” mirrors to reduce the size of blind spots in front of trucks weighing at least 26,000 pounds that operate on New York City streets. Enforcement of the mirror law is dismal, in part because of a loophole that exempts trucks registered out-of-state. The ultimate fix would be a national crossover mirror mandate, but the federal government has not shown any inclination to take that up.

A state or local side guard mandate could fall into a similar enforcement black hole. In April, the City Council held a hearing on a bill that would require side guards on all trucks making deliveries in the city. “There are some issues about when you try and mandate a certain technology within the city, there can be issues with state and federal law,” NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said, according to minutes of the hearing. “We think this is important but we want to make sure we get it right.” The legislation has since been put on hold.

Meanwhile, in Albany, two proposals this year targeted trucks on city streets weighing at least 26,000 pounds but would have exempted vehicles registered out-of-state. One of the bills was introduced in both Senate and Assembly committees earlier this year, but never came up for a vote. (Senator Brad Hoylman says he plans to re-introduce the legislation next session.)

A different bill from Senator Rubén Díaz, Sr., named in honor of Amar Diarrassouba, a 7-year-old boy killed by a turning truck driver while walking to school in East Harlem last year, seemed poised to make progress. Díaz’s bill received a vote in the Senate transportation committee in March. It was voted down, 9-10, when senators cited concern that side guards would cost too much for truck companies to install.

In the third and final installment in this series, we’ll look at why rear wheel guards to prevent people from getting crushed beneath buses are not being used in New York City.

  • Mr Cogsworth

    I noticed the other day that my son’s DSNY truck (which we bought from the NYC store, and uses a truck from German company MAN) actually has side guards.

  • vnm

    Look at the photo at the top. It’s at 45th & Fifth, right? I know that intersection well. Because of the high volume of pedestrians there’s a ban on vehicles making turns exactly like the one the truck is making! Except everyone makes turns anyway because it isn’t enforced! So, yes, get guards. But also enforce existing laws!

    See Google street view for the much-flouted turn-ban signage:,-73.9792044,3a,52.9y,277.85h,91.23t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s6FBMz_m7UPFdkQZNlmTHZg!2e0

  • vnm

    Oh well, I guess my link didn’t work.

  • sign, sign, everywhere..

    It looks like the turn ban is only in place 10:00 am – 6:00 pm on week days. I guess those are the only hours the intersection of 45th and 5th see levels of use that merit the restriction?! Huh? Also, classic example of NYC over/over-complicated signage. It’s no wonder drivers don’t comply. If the street were designed to hinder or prevent illegal turns, that design would be in place 24/7. It would be more noticeable and more easily understood than the sign, as well.

  • Miles Bader

    Why not just ban large trucks in the city?

  • Peter L

    No trucks == no city.

    I wouldn’t say that NHTSA regulates truck design. It’s more a case where the rules NHTSA makes to implement the law constrain truck design. Like the NYC DOT Comm’r says, it’s not easy to mandate a certain technology whether at the local or federal level.

    If I was a truck maker, I want to see some data that say that this is the correct choice for one thing. How do we know side guards are the best way to do this? Is a 6″ gap at the bottom better than a 12″ gap? How about steel versus plastic? I’m going to guess there are few or no studies on this.

    But putting side guards on all city trucks and measuring their effect is a pretty good way to start. And for uniformity’s sake, the regulation needs to be federal.

  • Joe R.

    Agreed that a federal regulation is better than local. Imagine a trucking company trying to comply with hundreds of different local regulations.

    On the federal level, I’d like to see the following mandated:

    1) Cross-over mirrors.
    2) Video rear view cameras
    3) Side guards
    4) Cabovers

    I’d also like to see a phase-in of a zero emissions requirement over the next ten years. No reason fleets which make lots of local deliveries especially shouldn’t already be electric. Same thing with municipal garbage trucks. Those would be the perfect vehicles for electric drive as they mostly move at walking speed and stop frequently.

  • ahwr

    Electric garbage trucks are new and expensive. Mandates to scale up new technologies right away never ends well.

    Cleaner are trucks are coming, maybe you can get to an electric fleet by 2035-2040.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve found private industry often needs a good kick in the butt to stop using older technologies. Often the only reason they don’t switch is fear that the new won’t work like the old. In this case electric fleets will not only eliminate emissions, but also help their bottom line. And it should be possible to retrofit existing trucks with electric drive so it’s not necessary to purchase new ones.

    As a great example of the success of government pushing new technology, look at the incandescent bulb bans. Without them, LED technology would not have advanced as rapidly as it did. Electric vehicles are already viable for many, if not most, uses. The only thing preventing mass adoption is inertia and range anxiety. Cost isn’t even an issue because if made in the same numbers as ICE vehicles, electric vehicles would cost the same or less. A mandate would take care of both things. Battery tech would advance even faster, and range anxiety wouldn’t exist as it did.

    This is something which can’t wait another 20 or 25 years. Over half a million people die painful cancer deaths annually in the US due to vehicle emissions. If we delay, that’s over 10 million people dead who didn’t have to die. And then you also have the quality of life issues from vehicle exhaust, which make going outside during the warmer months unbearable. The internal combustion engine is a technology which just needs to die.

  • Bolwerk

    NYC seems to regard electrification of anything that isn’t buried several hundred feet underground to be anathema.

    Electric surface transit was mature in the 1890s, and even battery-powered buses are probably fairly close to mature nowadays. Can we have them? No, real New Yorkers like fumes and loud internal combustion engines.

  • ahwr

    Incandescent bulbs weren’t banned. Efficiency standards were introduced that no incandescent bulb on the market could meet. Newer incandescent bulbs are more efficient, and can still be sold. And even then you’re talking about new bulbs, not existing ones. That sort of efficiency standard is leading to cleaner diesel garbage trucks by 2020, not electric vehicles. You want to go further and replace an existing fleet much earlier than it would otherwise be, and with a vehicle that has no track record. Set stricter standards by 2030 and so on. Eventually you can get to zero or negligible emissions. Maybe that will be battery electric. Maybe fuel cell. Maybe cleaner ICEs. The technology doesn’t matter.

  • Joe R.

    It’s a defacto ban. The standards are going high enough by 2020 such that incandescent technology can’t meet them. There’s even talk of raising them high enough so CFLs can’t meet them. If the new efficiency standards weren’t in place do you seriously think any companies would now be selling more efficient incandescents? That’s why sometimes private industry needs a little push.

    As Bolwerk said above, electric surface transit was mature in the 1890s. We don’t even necessarily need batteries. Just have it grid powered. I hate it when people act like electric vehicles are some newfangled technology. They’ve existed before ICE vehicles. There’s one reason they haven’t been adopted decades ago-big oil being in the pockets of politicians.

    Fuel cells are a joke. They freeze in very cold weather, the catalysts cost something like $1 million per vehicle, and in essence what they are is just a much less efficient battery. Of course, big oil loves them because they’ll go from selling $4 a gallon gas to $9 a gallon hydrogen, assuming of course we want to spend upwards of $1 trillion for a new distribution network.

  • ahwr

    The analogue of lumen/watt standards is not a mandate to use electric garbage trucks, it’s to get emissions of NOx, CO etc…below some level per mile, or ton of trash collected. But that’s not what you want. You want to mandate electric garbage trucks. Eventually you can get the emissions standards to the point where it might be a defacto ban on ICEs. But that’s not feasible in ten years. Twenty or thirty, sure.

  • Joe R.

    We went from breaking the sound barrier to putting men on the moon in 22 years. The problem isn’t the state of the technology. It’s the state of mind of the population. We’ve become a nation of can’t dos, starting with the jerks who lead us, who take decades to do something we would have done in six months two generations ago. That’s what’s wrong here-people need a foot up their behinds. If I hear not feasible or unrealistic one more time I think I’ll throw up. Maybe most of the American population belongs in a place like Afghanistan where people largely live the same as they did 1000 years ago.

    China is whipping our behinds but we’re too dumb to do anything about it. Wait until the market is flooded with nice Chinese electric vehicles in a few years. Yet another opportunity lost for America, former land where all things were possible but now a sad shell of its former glory.

    People get the leadership they deserve. That’s why we have deBlasio, Cuomo, a Tea Party majority Congress, and a spineless President.

  • ahwr

    If china has cheap electric garbage trucks in a few years then DSNY and private haulers can buy them as they replace their fleet. But you don’t expect that to happen do you? If you did you wouldn’t be asking for a mandate.

    Replacing a truck in five years when it can run fine for another fifteen is expensive. That’s always fine as long as someone else is paying though, right?

  • Joe R.

    Did I not say something about retrofits? Here it is to refresh your memory:

    And it should be possible to retrofit existing trucks with electric drive so it’s not necessary to purchase new ones.

    If the truck body is still in good shape, why would you have to replace it.? That’s just stupid. The same way you might swap in a cleaner engine, you can swap in an electric drive. It’s really easy-the motor bolts to the drive shaft, and is geared down to provide the same starting torque as the engine. Because it’s an electric motor, it’ll happily go from a dead stop to full speed without needing multiple transmission ratios. That takes care of the motor. Plenty of space left in the engine compartment for the battery plus control/charging electronics. Given that these are fleets, you’ll have the cost advantages of mass production. I won’t guess at the cost, but I’ll hazard a bet that the cost will be less than the operating cost savings over the remaining life of the vehicle. These might not be nearly as good as a truck designed from the ground up to be electric, but they might only be 10% worse. That’s plenty good enough until the fleet can be replaced with electric trucks designed as such in 15 or 20 years.

    Without a mandate though, nobody is going to tool up to make these EV retrofits unless they had seven or eight figures to lose. That’s why the mandate is needed.

    China may or may not have cheap electric trucks around in a few years. I think they will. The electric retrofits might still be much more cost effective than even cheap electric trucks.

  • ahwr

    . nobody is going to tool up to make these EV retrofits unless they had seven or eight figures to lose.


  • Joe R.

    It would cost that much to get a few prototypes out there for fleets to test. And if there was a mandated market there are companies which would do this. However, nobody will risk that much capital on something which wasn’t nearly a sure bet. Would you?

    The marketplace is full of failed companies which tried to introduce great technology but couldn’t convince people to buy it. I’ve little doubt major truck fleets would be totally averse to EV retrofits unless they were told they had to convert to zero emissions. To be fair, I think the requirement should be technologically neutral-meaning zero emissions, but that ends up EV by default as no other technology can deliver ZEV cost effectively, or at all.

    The issue here is human nature. People are often afraid of anything new. They want someone else to try it first before they’ll use it. In the end, it might only take one city requiring a fleet of zero emission trucks to start a quick national transition but without any mandate it will take much, much longer. We just don’t have the time. Health care costs are bankrupting us. Much of those health care costs are directly or indirectly caused by motor vehicle emissions. It’s either pay a little now to convert, or pay much more over the next 20 years for health care. Remember each of those 600,000 annual cancer deaths costs something like $1 million on average. If we assume even half are prevented by a zero emissions mandate we save $300 billion annually.

    If the fleets had to pay for the medical bills their emissions cause, you can bet they would convert to zero emissions yesterday.

  • ahwr

    CO2 and H2O emissions have what impact on local health? Emissions of particulates, NOx, CO etc…do have an impact, but what happens if you cut emissions 90% or more? Certainly feasible with ICEs. You’re ‘technologically neutral’ zero emissions standard is a mandate with no basis in science. That’s indefensible.

    It’s either pay a little now to convert, or pay much more over the next 20 years for health care. Remember each of those 600,000 annual cancer deaths costs something like $1 million on average. If we assume even half are prevented by a zero emissions mandate we save $300 billion annually.

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimated the 2009 overall annual costs of cancer were as follows:

    Total cost: $216.6 billion

    Direct medical costs (total of all health expenditures): $86.6 billion

    Indirect mortality costs (cost of lost productivity due to premature death): $130 billion

    And you could get most of the savings that are attainable with cleaner ICEs.

  • Joe R.

    What about the noise issue? That’s both a quality of life and a health issue. These large trucks are more noisy at 5 mph than your typical auto is at 80 mph.

    There are lots of other emissions from ICEs which cause health problems. I’m not even sure it’s feasible to cut NOx and CO by 90%, at least not for a long time. CO2 is classed as a pollutant and must be eliminated for global warming reasons. You may be transferring some CO2 emission from the truck to the generating plant but you still cut the magnitude with EVs.

    And you could get most of the savings that are attainable with cleaner ICEs.

    For many toxins in exhaust there are no safe exposure levels. Cutting some types of emissions by 90%, which isn’t feasible now anyway, wouldn’t cut cancer rates by 90%.

    Let’s talk about economics. Everything I’ve read says electric vehicles are far cheaper to operate. That in and of itself is a good reason to convert but thanks to FUD spread by big oil it’s an uphill battle. Without the FUD, fleets may have converted years ago. Remember the USPS was using electric delivery trucks since the early 20th century. The last batch was abandoned not because they didn’t work, but because they broke down so little the mechanic’s union feared job losses! Incidentally, that’s yet another reason for spreading FUD. The auto companies make on average half their profits from a vehicle from spare parts over that vehicle’s lifetime. Electric vehicles break down far less often, basically killing that spare parts income.

    All this delay reminds me of the endless “studies” to get cars out of Central Park. It’s just a delay tactic. Follow the money to see who’s behind it.

  • ahwr

    Compared to what’s running today yes you can cut NOx and CO emissions by 90%. CARB has for cars. Go somewhere away from the coasts, especially a place where everyone uses light trucks and you can appreciate how much CARB has done. Low sulphur diesel blends allow emission control technologies to do the same for trucks. The problem is old diesels can be fixed up to last a long time, not just the truck chassis, so private haulers were dragging their feet. That’s the point of the city’s deal with the private haulers, to get them to replace or retrofit with cleaner systems their old trucks. But transportation is only a small share of toxic emissions in the city anyway. CO2 is not a local pollutant. As to global warming…it’s not obvious that the most cost effective way to reduce net emissions is by getting rid of ICEs. Better to put a tax on all GHG emissions and raise it slowly to reach emission targets.

    Not everything is a conspiracy.

    edit: as to the noise issue – set standards for noise emissions too, phased in over twenty years or so.

  • Joe R.

    Seeing that video with the electric garbage truck I got the impression that it’s almost ready for prime time right now, certainly within a few years. I think a 20 year timeline is ridiculous, especially given that it’s feasible to retrofit existing vehicles without scrapping them. I loved the driver’s testimony about how much more comfortable it was to work in an electric truck. That alone is reason enough for widespread adoption.

    You don’t think there’s a conspiracy? I actually discussed electric vehicles with someone and he mentioned hearing about a radiation hazard from the drive electronics. He wasn’t talking about EMI, either, but about gamma rays. I actually asked him where he heard this shit. He said on one of the conservative radio talk shows.

    I’m an electronics engineer. I know a lot about batteries, control electronics, electric motors, etc. I can say with 100% certainty battery electric vehicle technology is ready for prime time right now in every way, including economically. Indeed, it was viable even a decade ago. If it hasn’t seen widespread adoption, it’s due to a failure of people, not a failure of the technology. In a nutshell, too many gain by keeping the status quo, except of course the end user.

  • stephenhadley

    Do not forget front guards for pedestrians and cyclists. APROSYS – “It is shown that the risk for injuries to head and lower extremities may be reduced by up to 97% at impact velocities of up to 40 km/h. (25 mph)”. 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. .


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