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NHTSA puts cost of mandatory side underride guards at up to $1.2B

WASHINGTON — Federal regulators have estimated the annual cost to equip new truck trailers with side underride guards at up to $1.2 billion as the Biden administration takes the first step toward a potential requirement aimed at reducing crash fatalities.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced on Tuesday it will be publishing in the Federal Register a notice and comment on the preliminary cost estimates, which are based on the agency’s most recent research and analysis. At the same time, NHTSA named 16 members of a new Advisory Committee on Underride Protection to make recommendations to the secretary of transportation on regulations related to underride crashes.

“The selection and establishment of this committee is a step forward in saving lives and fulfilling the goals of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator Sophie Shulman. “This committee will inform future actions and ensure that key stakeholders have a seat at the table on this important issue.”

The 16 committee members and the groups they represent are:

  • Marianne Karth and Jane Mathis (families of underride crash victims).
  • Harry Adler and Jennifer Tierney (truck safety organizations).
  • Lee Jackson and Aaron Kiefer (motor vehicle crash investigators).
  • Adrienne Gildea (law enforcement).
  • Daniel McKisson (labor organizations).
  • Jeff Bennett and Jeff Zawacki (motor vehicle engineers).
  • Matthew Brumbelow and Claire Mules (insurance industry).
  • Dan Horvath and Doug Smith (motor carriers).
  • John Freiler and Kristin Glazner (truck and trailer manufacturers).

According to NHTSA’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 17 lives would be saved and 69 serious injuries would be prevented each year if underride guards were installed on all trailers under a new standard.

The agency estimates that such a requirement would boost the cost of a new trailer by approximately $3,740 to $4,630 depending on the discount rate applied (which take into account the effects on investment and business and the return received by consumers), with total annual cost projected at $970 million to $1.2 billion.

“These estimated cost impacts do not include additional costs that accrue due to incremental wear and tear on equipped trailers,” NHTSA pointed out. “Side underride guards may impose non-uniform loads on trailer floors, adding stresses that decrease trailer lifetimes in the absence of repair. It is possible that side underride guards would obstruct proper safety inspections of the underside of the trailer. They may also strike or entangle with road structures and loading area components, leading to additional repair costs or restricted access to destinations.”

Also not included in the estimate is the additional operating costs resulting from side underride guards restricting the movement of trailer rear axles, which normally can be adjusted to accommodate loading conditions.

“Furthermore, the estimated costs do not include any potential effects of side underride guards on port and loading dock operations and freight capacity, and on increased greenhouse gases and other pollutants resulting from increased fuel consumption,” NHTSA cautioned.

“We seek comment on the practicability and feasibility of side underride guards regarding intermodal operations and effects of side underride guards on intermodal equipment, freight mobility, freight capacity, and port operations.”

Trucking interests already pushing back

Both big carriers and owner-operators have long been concerned about the costs of a potential side-guard mandate, asserting that there is a lack of evidence showing the benefits would outweigh the costs.

“To make matters worse, we now have an advisory panel in place that gives more influence to representatives who have no clue how to operate a heavy vehicle than those who understand the serious operational challenges and hazards created by side underride guards,” Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said of the upcoming proposed rulemaking.

“We will not see improvements in highway safety until lawmakers and federal regulators prioritize the expertise of professional drivers above other interest groups.”

David Heller, vice president of safety and government affairs for the Truckload Carriers Association, believes more research needs to be done before the government rolls out a mandate.

“If a rule got done today on equipment that hadn’t been tested out, it would be the most expensive mandate ever placed on the trucking industry,” Heller said during a TCA regulatory update in October.

“It’s one of those issues for which we still have a ton of questions, and they will need to be answered before they move forward with a rule.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.