Victims of underride collision demand Vision Zero and an independent Traffic Safety Ombudsman

side underride
© Marianne Karth

All the media are obsessed with the recent crash of a Tesla and the death of its driver. It was just one of thousands of what are known as underride crashes that happen every year; the only difference in this one is that the car was driving itself on autopilot. According to economist Daniel Suskind, as quoted in the Economist,

People seem to tolerate road deaths caused by humans, but hold machines to much higher standards. “we compare machines to perfection, not to humans doing the same tasks,” he says.

So the fact that humans are killed with alarming regularity in underride collisions barely gets noticed. They happen because the body of the typical trailer is so high that the crush zones, air bags and all the safety features built into cars are useless as the car and driver get decapitated.

It took the death of actor Jayne Mansfield in a rear underride collision to make the bars seen on the rear of trailers mandatory; they are even known as Mansfield bars. However they are not in fact all that strong and often do not meet the minimum standards set by the regulators. In 2013 teenagers Mary and AnnaLeah Karth were killed in an underride crash, where the bar gave way; since then their mother, Marianne, has been campaigning “to raise awareness about three issues related to truck safety: driver fatigue, minimum liability insurance levels, and underride guards.” I could not watch her entire video but here it is:

In fact, she is doing a lot more than that, and is pushing the Vision Zero concept, where no deaths are considered an acceptable price to pay.


Nobody pays much attention to the carnage on the road; many were appalled at how much attention has been paid to the Tesla crash while not even mentioning the other 35,000 people killed last year. In many cases those deaths are considered “accidents”- in others, the victims are often blamed. The police and investigators often take what is called the Windshield view, siding with the drivers or the car industry. Karth complains that the industry “has power far greater than the voice of those advocating for the victims, or, in this case, advocates trying to prevent people from becoming victims!”

The industry (and the regulators) take the position that one can have a cost-benefit analysis that determines if a measure is worth taking; the Trailer manufacturers association estimates that putting sideguards on trailers would cost so much money in additional fuel and lost payload that each death prevented would cost $ 47 million. (That’s a bit over the top, and the subject of a separate post coming tomorrow).

Vision Zero throws cost-benefit analyses out the windshield;

A core principle of the vision is that 'Life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society' rather than the more conventional comparison between costs and benefits, where a monetary value is placed on life and health, and then that value is used to decide how much money to spend on a road network towards the benefit of decreasing how much risk.

Karth doesn’t believe that the current system is fair to victims, and has started a petition to the White house to create an impartial and independent Traffic Safety Ombudsman:

Every average day in the U.S., 100 of our loved ones die in crashes and 400 more suffer serious crash injuries–along with $2 Billion in crash losses.

We propose that the President establish an independent Office of National Traffic Safety Ombudsman to be an advocate to eliminate preventable crash deaths and serious injuries.

We need someone who has a mandate to advocate on behalf of the victims, someone who is not compromised by competing interests. We call on the President to take this action to protect our families and loved ones from one of the leading causes of preventable death.

Traffic Safety has not been a national priority. Without this Presidential action, too many lives will continue to be lost to vehicle violence.

I have been following the deaths of cyclists and pedestrians and complained about how they are covered in the media and how they are dealt with by the police, the courts and the politicians, and Marianne Karth is right- there has to be someone looking out for victims, there has to be more balance. I believe that the cycling and pedestrian advocates should get behind her proposal to ensure that this Ombudsman campaign gets the votes it needs, and that the Ombudsman looks after every victim’s interest, not just those in cars, because the problems are systemic.

Get more information and sign here.

Tags: Activism | Transportation

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