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SDOT installs truck safety sideguards + What would it take to get them on every truck?

Photo from SDOT
Photo from SDOT

Seattle’s Department of Transportation is retrofitting all department trucks to include sideguards designed to reduce harm to people walking and biking in the case of a collision.

One of the biggest dangers for people around large trucks is not the initial collision, but the likelihood that someone will be knocked to the ground, then run over by the rear wheels. The sideguards are a very simple way to help push people out of the way of the wheels in the case of a collision. People may still be injured, but the seriousness of those injuries and the likelihood of death would be significantly reduced.

A study out of the U.K. found that “fatalities from side-impact collisions with trucks were reduced by 61% for cyclists, and 20% for pedestrians, after sideguards were added,” according to SDOT. That’s not zero, but it’s a big improvement. This is an easy way to work that much closer to Vision Zero.


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Sadly, a terrible collision in Portland this morning highlights why sideguards are so needed: A man biking was killed in a collision with someone driving a box truck without sideguards. While details are very early, Bike Portland reports from the scene that the man’s bike was lodged near the rear wheels, likely due to a right hook collision. Our condolences to the man’s friends and family.

The SDOT action follows a similar decision by the University of Washington in Spring 2015, which added sideguards to all campus trucks.

Obviously, the first goal should be to prevent a collision in the first place, but sideguards are an extremely easy way to reduce harm when collisions happen.

New York City and Boston have also required the guards on city vehicles for years now, and Boston estimates that the cost to install the guards is only $1,800, a small percentage of the cost of a large truck. Boston goes an extra step by also requiring sideguards on trucks used by contractors the city hires, which is one step Seattle could take immediately.

UPDATE 2/7: NBC News posted a very timely report today about a national effort to require truck sideguards. The effort is mostly focused on the safety of people driving, of whom about 200 die each year after crashing into the side of unguarded trucks. There’s even an online petition you can sign. So the issue is not just about biking and walking safety. (h/t Bike Portland)

While it’s great that SDOT is working to set an example, what will it take to get sideguards on all large trucks operating in the city/county/state? Could the King County Board of Health require them the way they require adults to wear bicycle helmets? It makes more sense to require safety equipment on dangerous machinery operating in public than on possible victims.

Due to the interstate nature of trucking, a comprehensive solution would need to be national, though maybe a couple big states passing such laws would be enough to set the standard. Perhaps insurance companies could start calculating sideguards into their premiums for commercial trucks, which only makes sense considering the harm (and, therefore, payout) reduction sideguards could provide. That may get nationwide results faster than waiting for a Federal regulation.

More details on the SDOT effort, via the SDOT Blog:

SDOT is committed to making our streets safer for everyone, and we’re taking a big step by retrofitting all SDOT trucks with sideguards.

Sideguards reduce the risk of serious injury or death by preventing pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcycles from being caught underneath a large truck. According a study in the U.K., fatalities from side-impact collisions with trucks were reduced by 61% for cyclists, and 20% for pedestrians, after sideguards were added.

Sideguards can also help save on gas by reducing air drag an increasing fuel efficiency.

In addition to retrofitting all existing large trucks, SDOT is requiring all new large trucks be equipped with sideguards straight from the manufacturer.

To learn more about side guards, and how they help save lives and fuel, check out the U.S. Department of Transportation information page.

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7 responses to “SDOT installs truck safety sideguards + What would it take to get them on every truck?”

  1. (Another) Tom

    Seems like an opportunity to work with auto insurance companies. Organizations and individuals that install sideguards should be safer and cheaper to insure. Perhaps the carrot of reduced rates might encourage retrofits.

    I’d also like to see legislation that requires new trucks to come with the sideguards installed. These should be considered basic safety features akin to seatbelts and turn signals.

    1. William

      It is not clear why this should be of interest to insurance companies. If driving becomes safer and insurance rates go down, insurance companies make less money. Insurance companies are only financially interested in reducing risks that they cannot properly price.

      Side guards exist in the EU, Japan, China and Brazil because they are required by law. They do not exist in the US because they are not required by law, which is quite shameful. It is unlikely the feds will mandate them soon but if California did they would probably become standard across the US pretty quickly.

      1. One insurance company might start offering a side-guard discount because it would give them the best rates for anyone using them. Other insurance companies might follow suit to avoid losing business to this company. It would be similar to discounts offered for other safety features like air bags.

        Whether this would actually work might depend on what sort of discounts the actuaries thought was appropriate — the bigger, the better.

  2. Erik

    How many cyclists die each year due to the lack of thes side guards in Seattle? Are there better ways to spend money and increase safety? The premise of this blog is that they should just be added but I would think proper data should be provided to show other than maybe “any life is worth saving”……..

    1. William

      Erik, it is not just cyclists that benefit it is also automobiles and pedestrians. it is hard to put a number on it because the country’s that have introduced them have done so in conjunction with other safety measures but in the UK it is estimated that they reduced fatalities by 60% for side collisions with bikes, 20% for pedestrians and 50% for automobiles.

      In the US there are about 100 deaths in automobiles a year attributed to side impact truck under ride and about the same for rear impacts which could also be prevented by better truck design. There were also >100 deaths a year of cyclists and pedestrians from side impact.

      Retrofitting trucks is expensive but if side guards were built into the design of new trucks, especially ones that travel long distances at freeway speed, they would pay for themselves in increased fuel economy. Thus, it is totally ridiculous and indefensible, that they are not mandated for new trucks.

  3. A high proportion of bike rider fatalities in Seattle are due to bike/truck crashes. Sideguards can save lives. Standard in some countries.

    We did get truck side guards included as one of the safety strategies in the Seattle Freight Master Plan, and this is a direct result. The city can implement this on their own trucks, and may be able to require it for trucks operating under city contracts.
    The city, port and states cannot regulate safety for freight vehicles engaged in interstate commerce, which may be broadly interpreted. So, it is the USDOT that would have to add this valuable requirement.

    Here is a some more information on side guards from West Seattle Bike Connections, after a very close call with one of our most active members. Al is a bus driver and ex-Marine. He had the skills, awareness and luck survive an incident that truck guards would have helped to save a less skilled/lucky rider.
    http://westseattlebikeconnections.org/2015/09/12/close-call-for-al-on-east-marginal-way-s/

    We would like to push this with USDOT, and have a couple of receptive contacts. The new administration is not favorable for adding regulations and business costs, but this seems like it is worth some effort.

  4. sgk

    Truck side guards should be sold as win-win. They provide safety as well as decrease wind drag which improves fuel efficiency. Many of the big long haul trucking companies have adopted them.

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