What Are Truck Underride Accidents? 

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underride accidents

Any car accident involving a passenger car and a tractor trailer is dangerous, resulting in serious injuries from the truck’s size and weight advantage. The vast majority of such truck accidents result in death more often than not, taking the lives of more than 4,000 annually in the United States. Truck underride accidents are no exception.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), over 500 people die each year of truck underride accidents, one of the deadliest types of vehicle collisions. Tractor trailers sit much higher off the road than passenger vehicles. In a collision, truck underride occurs when a passenger vehicle crashes into the truck and is subsequently shoved underneath the trailer, shearing off the top part of the vehicle, resulting in horrific trauma and death to the passengers. Few, if any, survive underride accidents, and those who live suffer catastrophic and debilitating personal injury requiring lifelong care and assistance.

The first point of contact in a semi and passenger car collision is almost always the car’s windshield, bypassing the passenger vehicle’s front and rear crumple zones and rendering the car’s safety features useless. With occupants mere inches from the windshield in most passenger vehicles, death almost always results. Because of these factors, even underride accidents at low speeds can be deadly.

Although laws and regulations in recent years have implemented safety measures designed to reduce the number of underride accidents, these massive trucks can still pose great danger to other motorists in the right conditions.

What Causes Underride Accidents?

Underride accidents occur for several reasons, including driver error, lighting, weather, and road conditions. There are two types of underride accidents, side and rear, each having slightly different causes.

Side Underride Accidents

This type of collision occurs when a tractor trailer is crossing or turning onto a street, backing up across traffic, or making a U-turn, which can cause oncoming vehicles to not see that the truck is crossing their path. Side underride collisions usually occur at the truck’s trailer and cause the vehicle to slide underneath the trailer, particularly small or lower riding vehicles.

Side underride accidents happen more frequently during periods of low sun-angle conditions and at night. In some instances, drivers incorrectly assume that the truck is moving faster and will clear the roadway faster. Drivers’ impaired visibility of semi-trucks during these conditions is based on target conspicuity, how well an object stands out from its background based on the object’s color, brightness, shape, and size:

  • Color: Objects are more difficult to discern when they are similar in coloring as the background, have multiple colors that blend into the background, or dark colors that are more difficult to see. Color conspicuity is the concept applied by hunters wearing camouflage in the woods to hide themselves from wildlife, but donning blaze orange to be seen by other hunters.
  • Brightness: Contrast can be affected by an object’s brightness or reflectivity. Surfaces that reflect light well stand out better against poorly reflective backgrounds than surfaces with poor reflectivity.
  • Movement: Non-moving or slow-moving objects have lower contrast against the background, making them more difficult to discern versus faster moving objects that create more contrast.
  • Shape: An object’s shape, as well as the shape of its patterns and markings, can affect its contrast against the background, especially if the markings are inconsistent and random, which make the object’s silhouette effectively disappear.
  • Size: Smaller objects are much more visible than larger ones.

Inadequate trailer marking lights can also cause side underride accidents during daylight or nighttime. Marker lights on the side of trailers are often small and can be as much as 26 feet apart, causing drivers to not recognize the trailer as an obstruction in their path. 

Rear Underride Accidents

As with any size vehicle, rear-end collisions occur when a driver slams into the rear of the vehicle traveling in front. In rear underride accidents, the driver’s vehicle slides underneath the truck’s trailer, usually with deadly consequences. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), over 23 percent of total vehicle accident fatalities occurred in rear underride collisions. Rear underride accidents can also occur when a poorly marked truck is slowing to exit or for a railroad crossing, parked on the side of the road, or moving slowly as it enters the roadway.

Most rear underride accidents occur at night. As with side underride accidents, target conspicuity also plays a role in rear underride collisions. Depending on the time of day and whether light is reflecting off the surface, the back of the truck’s trailer can be virtually invisible against the background, causing drivers to follow the truck too closely, resulting in inadequate stopping time. Additional causes include the following:

  • Dirty lighting: Tractor trailers are typically outfitted with numerous running lights to make them more visible to other motorists, though these lights are not fail-safe. Fewer lights, nonfunctioning lights, or dirty lights prevent drivers from clearly seeing the back of a trailer in front of them, especially at night.
  • Protruding loads: Trucks frequently carry loads that protrude past the back of the trailer, such as pipes, beams, or lumber. These types of items are often dark colored, have no reflecting qualities, and can appear as not protruding to the driver following the trailer. These conditions can also occur during daytime hours, especially if the protruding object is not marked with a red flag or other equipment to alert drivers to its presence.
  • Poorly placed guards: In 1998, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated that the back of a tractor trailer must be outfitted with underride guards designed to prevent other vehicles from sliding under the trailer in an accident. Poor design or placement, however, can cause them to fail when struck in a crash and allowing vehicles to slide underneath. Currently, the law pertains to only rear guards, not side.
  • Headlight blindness: At night, oncoming drivers cannot always distinguish between tractor trailers and other vehicles in the opposing lane, not realizing the truck may be in their path. Additionally, drivers may not adapt to bright headlights and resort to following the white edge line on the road, never seeing the truck or trailer in the same lane.

Underride collisions can also take place at the front of the truck, though this type of accident is more rare than side or rear crashes. Front underride accidents are typically caused by poor truck maintenance, commonly the partial or total failure of the truck’s braking system. Driver distraction and following too closely also account for front underride accidents.

Truck Markings and Lighting

Visibility is key in preventing both side and rear underride accidents. The DOT mandates that all trailers must be equipped with conspicuity markings on all sides. The most commonly installed markings are sections of retroreflective tape for its ability to reflect light back at great distances. 

The DOT requires the use of tape 2 inches wide with red and white alternating patterns, positioned on the sides and rear of the trailer, 15 to 60 inches above the ground. Tape placed on the sides must be evenly spaced and cover at least 50 percent of the trailer’s length. Tape on the rear must cover the entire width of the trailer with four 12-inch white stripes placed in each of the upper corners.

Retroreflective tape markings allow other drivers to perceive the size of the trailer, and the mix of red and white coloring provides contrast against dark backgrounds, making it more visible. The standardization of these markings not only allows drivers to see the semi, but also provides instant recognition as a tractor trailer.

Baltimore Truck Accident Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Advocate for Clients and Families after a Truck Underride Collision

Even at low speeds, truck underride accidents are almost always deadly. Those lucky enough to survive endure catastrophic injuries requiring life-long care, impacting daily life and financial needs. If you or a family member was involved in an underride accident, reach out to the Baltimore truck accident lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton. Our experienced team will fight to secure the compensation for which you are entitled. Call us today at 800-547-4LAW (4529) or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.

We have offices in Baltimore, Glen Burnie, and Prince George’s County, allowing us to represent clients in Maryland, including those in Anne Arundel CountyCarroll CountyHarford CountyHoward CountyMontgomery CountyPrince George’s CountyQueen Anne’s CountyMaryland’s Western CountiesSouthern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, as well as the communities of CatonsvilleEssexHalethorpeMiddle RiverRosedale, Gwynn OakBrooklandvilleDundalkPikesvilleParkvilleNottinghamWindsor MillLuthervilleTimoniumSparrows PointRidgewood, and Elkridge.