Safety advocates start paying more attention to safety flaws with tractor-trailer underride guards.

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Safety advocates start paying more attention to safety flaws with tractor-trailer underride guards.

— The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is known for tough crash tests that can send an automaker back home to improve the safety of a car, right down to the headlights.

But a new safety award seeks to do more than award only car manufacturers, although the tests will have a tremendous impact on the safety of typical car occupants.

IIHS has created a new award called TOUGHGUARD for tractor-trailer manufacturers that offer the best rear "underride guards" used to prevent injuries and deaths when vehicles crash into the rear of tractor-trailers.

Federal law mandates every tractor-trailer be equipped with a rear guard to help prevent a vehicle from going under the trailer, but those guards have been known to break in a crash. In addition, many of those crashes that broke rear guards were slow-speed incidents.

In 2015, 427 people were killed in passenger vehicles that slammed into the back of tractor-trailers, a number 39 percent larger compared to data from 2011.

The Institute says it created the tests to replicate conditions where rear guards have failed in real-world crashes.

Researchers use a midsize car that travels at 35 mph toward a parked tractor-trailer. The car strikes the center of the guard head-on, then half of the car's front-end strikes the guard, and in the toughest test, 30 percent of the front of the car strikes the trailer at its outermost corner. According to IIHS researchers, the guards are weakest at the outer edges.

IIHS says five manufacturers earned the new TOUGHGUARD award: Great Dane LLC, Manac Inc., Stoughton Trailers LLC, Vanguard National Trailer Corp. and Wabash National Corp.

Trailers from Hyundai Translead, Strick Trailers LLC and Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co. passed the full-width and 50 percent overlap tests but not the 30 percent overlap test. However, all three companies are working on changes to their guards to pass the 30 percent test.

Although IIHS, trailer manufacturers and others are doing a good job concerning rear guards on tractor-trailers, car occupants are still being decapitated by vehicles that crash into and under the sides of tractor trailers.

An impact with the side of a tractor-trailer is almost always fatal to car occupants, more so if the car is really low to the ground. An example is seen in a recent crash involving a Tesla Model S that smashed into the side of a tractor-trailer, killing former Navy SEAL Joshua Brown. The top of the Model S was sheered off as the rest of the car traveled under the trailer.

Brown was killed upon impact, and photos from the crash show a trailer without side guard rails. He is one of about 200 people killed each year in vehicles that crash into the sides of tractor-trailers, a number unnecessarily too high according to experts at the National Transportation Safety Board.

Consumer advocates say the trucking industry could easily equip the trucks with side guards but refuses because of the cost involved and because the side guard rails aren't required under federal laws.

Federal legislators could create regulations to force the trucking industry to use side guards, but transportation companies donate millions to politicians who may not be so quick to force trucking companies to spend extra money on the guards.

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