Crash victims allege DOT violations related to underride guard report


WASHINGTON — Truck safety advocates want the Biden administration to investigate whether regulators violated ethics rules and federal law in conducting cost-benefit assessments of crash protection equipment for truck trailers.
In a letter sent Thursday to U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General Eric Soskin requesting the investigation, the Truck Safety Coalition, along with a group of truck crash victim advocates and victim family members, alleged potential misconduct by DOT officials in coordinating with the American Trucking Associations “to suppress taxpayer-financed research on improving public safety in underride crashes with large commercial freight trucks.”
The groups cited recent investigative reporting conducted by ProPublica and PBS Frontline. They noted in their letter that in 2019 and 2020, the two news organizations revealed that DOT officials, at the direction of ATA, “censored any mention of the word ‘regulation’ and struck whole sections of a draft government report that assessed technology designed to protect pedestrians, bicyclists, and other vulnerable road users from death and horrific injuries in collisions with commercial freight trucks.”
According to ProPublica, by the time of its release in 2020, the report, published by DOT’s Volpe Center, “had been dramatically rewritten, stripped of its key conclusions — including the need to federally mandate side guards — and cut down by nearly 70 pages.”
The findings raise serious concerns, the truck safety groups warned. “If true, they could constitute misconduct, conflict of interest, unethical conduct, and potentially public corruption,” their letter to Soskin stated.
“At a minimum, they would constitute an abuse of the agency’s mission. In 1999, known as the ‘second founding’ of the DOT, Congress required that the Department pursue ‘safety as the highest priority, recognizing the clear intent, encouragement, and dedication of Congress to the furtherance of the highest degree of safety in motor carrier transportation.’”
A DOT OIG spokesperson told FreightWaves that the office is reviewing the safety groups’ request and has further comment. ATA did not respond to a request for comment.
The investigation request comes as the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration considers whether to go forward on a formal rulemaking to require side underride guards for truck trailers. An Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) issued by the agency earlier this year found that the costs of such a mandate far exceeded benefits.
“I can’t say with certainty how and to what extent this report influenced (if at all) the underlying analysis that produced the side underride ANPRM,” Truck Safety Coalition Executive Director Zach Cahalan told FreightWaves. “However, [the report] certainly demonstrates DOT’s inappropriate deference to the whims and financial interests of industry lobbyists at the grave expense of the public interest.”
Both ATA and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association oppose side underride guard requirements, citing cost and safety concerns.
“Over the last several years, [NHTSA] has considered numerous options involving side underride guards, but has consistently concluded a federal mandate would be impractical and costly, thus outweighing possible safety benefits,” OOIDA stated in comments to NHTSA’s ANRPM. “Advancing any side underride mandate disregards this reality and ignores the safety, economic, and operational concerns that have been raised by small-business truckers.”
But Cahalan’s coalition and other safety groups, as well as the National Transportation Safety Board and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, blasted the ANPRM, asserting that NHTSA was severely underestimating the number of lives that would be saved by a side-guard mandate.
Marianne Karth, who was in Washington this week to memorialize hundreds of underride crash victims — including her two daughters — in front of DOT headquarters, said she wants NHTSA to acknowledge that the analysis used in the ANRPM is fatally flawed.
“We challenged the DOT Office of the Secretary to make it their priority, not to just say NHTSA will take care of it,” Karth told FreightWaves on Thursday, after speaking with a DOT official earlier in the week. “We would like to meet with Secretary Buttigieg directly, because we don’t know how much of this actually gets to his desk.”
For that reason, Karth said, she’s pushing to get an “ombudsman-victim” advocate at DOT “to be a voice for the victims, and to report to the DOT secretary on safety issues that need attention.”
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has proposed underride guard legislation, said in a statement that “NHTSA needs to go further by creating tougher standards for rear guards and mandating the use of side guards on trucks. I look forward to working with my colleagues to make our roads safer for all users.”
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