Recently, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) aired a “Frontline” report on “America’s Dangerous Trucks.” The television program focused on an investigation by ProPublica into car-truck accidents where the passenger vehicle underrides the truck chassis, often resulting in fatalities. ProPublica indicated the simple requirement that truck trailers have side underride guards would prevent these tragic results.

According to its website, the mission of ProPublica is:

To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.

In this instance, the abuses and betrayals are assigned to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and to the trucking industry for delaying and resisting safety regulations, thereby allowing needless deaths. The airing of the show coincided with the extension by NHTSA of the public comment period on its Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) on the potential requirement of side underride guards.

The ProPublica (PP) investigative reporter raised several concerns. Each is contrasted to the actual contents of the NHTSA ANPRM below:

PP – Side underride guards would cost “a few hundred bucks.”  NHTSA ANPRM – Based on the sole U.S. manufacturer, side underride guards would cost about $2,990 per set with installation, plus a fuel penalty from the added weight, bringing the total cost to a range of $3,930 to $4,630.

PP – NHTSA used a statistical value of human life of $12.5 million in its cost/benefit equation but then drastically undercounted fatalities by using the unreliable Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS) data. Had NHTSA correctly counted all underride fatalities, the cost/benefit would favor the side underride guard requirement.  NHTSA ANPRM – NHTSA recognized the FARS shortcomings and estimated a 78% higher number of side underride fatalities than that reported in FARS. NHTSA came to that estimate after individually reviewing accident reports and photos. The NHTSA ANPRM concludes that “…the lifetime costs of equipping new trailers and semitrailers with side underride guards is six to eight times the corresponding estimated safety benefits.” (That is after NHTSA considered only the costs — $970 million to $1.12 billion — of equipping newly manufactured trailers each year; retrofitting all existing trailers is estimated to cost over $34 billion.)

PP – There is a lengthy, “secret” history of regulatory agency delay and industry resistance to costs, with cost/benefit calculations given undue emphasis in decisions.  NHTSA ANPRM – The entire body of government research and reports on side underride guards is in the docket for public view. The cost/benefit analysis was conducted as required by federal law.

The time it takes for new regulations to evolve is really not so “secret.” The U.S. Congress made a deliberate choice in adopting the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) in 1946. That move came after an agency head in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration refused to explain to Congress how he allocated federal funds. Under the APA, rulemaking became tedious and time-consuming, but at least it remains open to public view and participation, not reliant on the viewpoint of one person or group.

Unfortunately, by focusing on accident aftermath rather than crash causation, “Frontline” perhaps lost an opportunity to save even more lives. The NHTSA ANPRM considers side underride guards that would safely withstand a 40-mph impact from a passenger car into the side of a truck trailer – fully five mph higher than called for by Congress. But when NHTSA reviewed side underride accidents, it found that only 19.9% of the time were cars moving at or below 40 mph. A “frontline” call for everyone to slow down would truly save lives.

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