CLEVELAND, Ohio — Dawn Pope remembers very well the last time she saw her step-mother, Barbara Ann Finicle.
“I kissed her goodbye at the front door, and she was coming back at the end of the next week,” said Pope. “But she never made it back.”
Barbara, 68, was killed during what’s known as an “under-ride” crash on the Ohio turnpike.
An under-ride is when a car slides underneath a truck.
In Barbara’s case, she lost control in the rain, hit one truck, and spun before sliding partially under another truck.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) said about 400 Americans — on average, more than one a day — die in under-ride accidents.
But, what makes it worse, is that experts said many of those people could be saved if a certain standard for trucks was strengthened.
“There’s no reason for people to die in these crashes,” said Adrian Lund, the IIHS president.
Trucks are required to have an under-ride guard. It is a metal bar that goes across the lower back of the truck whose sole purpose is to keep cars from sliding under the trucks in accidents.
Experts said the standards for the guard need to be strengthened to keep a car from sliding underneath, because once they do, the chances increase that people in the car will be seriously hurt or killed.
“The standard for under-ride guards hasn’t changed since the mid-90s,” said Jeff Armstrong, an accident reconstruction expert.
In that time, the so-called “crumple zones” on cars have improved dramatically.
“Passenger vehicles have become much safer,” said Matt Brumbelow, a senior research engineer for the IIHS. “They can now run into perfectly rigid objects at 35 or 40 miles an hour, with very low risk of injury to the occupants inside.”
But, according to crash testing done by the IIHS, the standards in place in the United States won’t stop cars from sliding underneath a truck at 35 miles an hour.
By comparison, the more rigid standards in place in Canada did stop a car from sliding under at 35 miles an hour.
The federal agency responsible for the regulations, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), issued a statement to the I-Team that states that it is aware of the “scope and severity of the truck under-ride issue…”
NHTSA adds it’s been “conducting an in-depth field analysis to determine how we can improve standards that save lives.”
The agency said it identified the problem four years ago.
When asked when a new standard might be in place, NHTSA said it would not answer that question or any other question at this time.
The Ohio Highway Patrol (OHP) also said that compliance is an issue.
During truck inspections done by the OHP at a weigh station, the I-Team saw many examples of rusted or broken guards — guards that wouldn’t do their job no matter what standards were in place.
“If the guard does its job,” said Ohio State Highway Patrol Sgt. Eli Rivera, “It’s meant to keep the top half of the car in tact.”
Not all under-ride accidents can be prevented, and not all fatalities from under-ride accidents can be stopped, especially for accidents at higher speeds.
But at slower speeds with stronger guards?
“This is not rocket science, and it’s obviously not cost prohibitive,” said Lund. “And we know how to fix this.”
Sitting in her Elyria home, Dawn Pope knows her step-mom would want lawmakers to take a closer look at the standards.
“So that maybe someone else’s family wouldn’t have to go through it,” said Pope, through the loss of a beloved grandmother and great-grandmother.
It’s not clear that a stronger standard would have saved Barbara Ann Finicle.
But, experts said, it is clear that some, if not many, of the roughly 400 people who die each year could be saved if there were a stronger standard that was enforced.