Truck guard, a danger to drivers according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Crash test shows guard fails at low speeds

Siene Eberhardt has reason to notice every truck she sees on the road.

"It scares me.  If I drive on the road and see a truck that just happened to be there, I will speed up just to get away from it," she told the Contact 5 Investigators.

Her fear stems from a deadly crash on August 17, 2001.

"The last time I saw him, he was wearing his uniform to for work that day," describes Eberhardt, seated next to her attorney, Ted Leopold of Leopold Law in Palm Beach Gardens.

By 1:30 the next morning, Siene's husband, Donald Eberhardt Jr. was headed home from his shift as a Riviera Beach police officer.  He would never make it home.

Siene remembers a knock on the door early that morning. 

"They said there's been an accident.  I thought it was maybe, he got shot."

Officer Eberhardt's wife would learn her husband had crashed into the back of a semi-truck that was illegally parked on Blue Heron Boulevard.

But what killed him was an old, rusted out underride guard that collapsed when it was hit. 

Without the guard, Eberhardt's car slid underneath more than 12,000 pounds of steel, shredding its roof to pieces.

"All I asked when they told me was if I could please see him, they said no."

Upon impact, Officer Eberhardt was traveling no more than 33 miles per hour. 

Underride guards are required on most big trucks.  The steel guard is designed to protect drivers from sliding underneath the back of a semi in the event of a collision.   Turns out, they're not always there, and when they are, inspection reports show some are in such bad condition, they're worthless.

Major Terrie Gartner inspects commercial trucks -- and has seen plenty of underride guards that are over the top.

"It might have this part missing, bent in.  You see strange things like a wire holding it up," he explains.

According to data provided to the Contact 5 Investigators, last year about a half dozen companies between Palm Beach and Indian River County were cited for having underride issues.

Click here to view the South Florida citations.

Around the same time, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety took the issue of underride guards head on.  In a series of crash tests, the IIHS proved even those guards fully intact and up to date fail and can kill.

"Meeting the minimum requirement really isn't sufficient," explained Matthew Brumbelow a senior research engineer for IIHS.    

The Institute crashed a Chevy Malibu into the back of a semi-truck equipped with an underride guard that meets current U.S. standards.  Upon impact the car's roof was peeled back and its front window shattered.

Watch the full video from the IIHS crash tests below.

"This, probably, would have been a fatal accident," said Brumbelow who also said tests revealed current guards can fail in a crash test with a speed as low as 30 or 35 miles an hour."

As part of its test, the IIHS also equipped a semi with a stronger, more energy absorbent, Canadian approved, underride guard.  The difference was dramatic.

"The occupants of this vehicle would have been able to walk away with very minor injuries"

The Insurance Institute is now pushing the feds to rewrite its underride standards to more rigid qualifications.

Click here to read the full IIHS report on underride guard safety issues.

In response to the crash tests, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued the following statement:

"NHTSA is well aware of the scope and severity of the truck underride issue, and first identified the need to strengthen underride performance in rear corner impact crashes in 2009.  Since then, we have been conducting an in-depth field analysis to determine how we can improve that standard to save lives.  The driving public should know that we are already actively working to address the issues raised in IIHS's report and that their safety will always be our top priority."

Click here to read the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association response to the IIHS report.

If changes are approved, it will be too late for Officer Eberhardt who left behind two children he never really knew and a wife who will never forget.

"All I see is him under that truck."

Click here to view interactive graphics detailing the number of people killed in underride accidents and the number of underride guard violations in the U.S.

WPTV Investigative Producer Lynn Walsh contributed to this story.

Photos provided by Leopold Law.

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