Anytime large vehicles occupy the same space as pedestrians and bicyclists, bad things can happen. When a fatality occurs, it is usually because an individual falls into the exposed space along the sides of high-clearance trucks and get crushed beneath the rear wheels. On construction and mining sites, companies are able to limit the interactions between people and trucks. On the average road or city street, though, such control is virtually impossible. The combination of truck blind spots and distracted driving, walking, and even bicycling is a recipe for disaster. For decades, many countries have had ordinances in place that require large vehicles to be equipped with side guards covering this open space along the sides of vehicles. Only in the last few years have these ordinances started to appear in cities across the U.S., but there is growing momentum.
On the grand scale, side-impact accidents between vehicles and bicyclists or pedestrians represent a miniscule percentage of vehicle crashes. According to the Association for Safe International Travel, nearly 1.3 million people die per year (3,287 per day) around the world from vehicle accidents, with 20-50 million more injured or disabled. Compare that with the 556 pedestrians and bicyclists side-impact fatalities in the U.S. over a recent 5-year period. Every traffic fatality is a tragedy, but when these horrific collisions take place between something as large as a vehicle and something as small and vulnerable as a pedestrian – in crowded urban areas—often with many witnesses— perceptions and repercussions are often magnified.
Something as simple and inexpensive as adding side guards to trucks has proven to be very effective in reducing the severity of these accidents. After the United Kingdom mandated truck side guards in 2016, the country saw a more than 60-percent drop in cyclist fatalities and a 20-percent drop in pedestrian fatalities. Side guards have proven so effective that they have been required standard equipment throughout the European Union and Japan since the 1980s. Brazil added the same requirement more recently.
Here in the U.S., Boston has been at the forefront of the movement to enact side-guard ordinances. Between 2010 and 2014, 11 bicyclists were killed in collisions with trucks on the city streets of Boston. By fall 2014, the Boston City Council had passed the first truck side guard ordinance in the United States. The ordinance mandated that by 2015 all future city-contracted vehicles over 10,000 pounds (for tractor trailers, a combined weight of over 26,000 pounds) would have to be equipped with side guards, convex mirrors, cross-over mirrors, and blind-spot awareness decals or the fleet owner risked losing contracts with the city.
New York City calls for all eligible trucks in the city fleet and the waste industry to be equipped with side guards by 2024. Action Carting, which hauls trash in New York City, has already installed side guards on 125 vehicles in its fleet. The company decided that, despite concerns about the cost of so many side guards and lack of clear specifications for side-guard installation, it made sense to upgrade their trucks. The U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe Center has since estimated the cost of side guards at approximately $850 per truck, and created standards that define precisely how to position the guards. As a side benefit, the U.K. trucking industry reports that equipping long-haul trucks with side guards can result in a 4-7 percent savings in fuel costs, or about $5,000 per truck per year.
This year (2018), Harvard University, along with the municipalities of Cambridge, where Harvard is located, and Somerville, adjacent to Cambridge, passed side guard ordinances, as did Washington, D.C. and Portland, Oregon. The side guard movement is gaining momentum in the U.S. with backing from the Vision Zero Network, a worldwide organization that has set the goal for the elimination of all traffic fatalities and severe injuries around the world.
Side guards have proven very effective in reducing the severity of vehicle versus bicyclist or pedestrian crashes; however, they do nothing to reduce the frequency of these incidents. Until technology can deliver on the utopian promise of autonomous, the most effective way to keep these crashes from happening at all is to provide vehicle operators with an active warning when pedestrians and cyclists are in a position where a collision is possible. A new generation of radar-based object-detection sensors, such as PRECO’s Side Defender®, provide operators with visual and audio warnings of people and objects as they approach the side of the vehicle.
Equipped with object detection safety technology, better cab design, and additional mirrors, the number of vehicle versus bicyclist or pedestrian crashes can be substantially decreased. Add side guards and the likelihood of a fatality resulting when such an incident does occur drops significantly. The tools are available today for American fleets to meet—or exceed— the success many other countries’ are seeing in reducing these tragic, preventable accidents.