I-85 death highlights how rear guards on trucks are not always effective

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The death of a 23-year-old woman in an underride crash Thursday is a reminder that a truck's rear guard, which is required by law, is not always effective. 

"Our testing has found that you can meet the [legal] requirements and still have a guard that fails at a crash speed of 35 miles an hour," said Matthew Brumbelow, with the non-profit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Sarah Cabe of Gastonia was killed around 8:15  a.m. when her 2003 Toyota Camry slid underneath a tractor trailer, which had been stopped due to rush hour traffic, according to North Carolina Highway Patrol. Authorities blame a "failure to reduce speed."

RELATED: Woman killed I-85 northbound wreck involving tractor trailer

Underride crashes occur when a passenger vehicle slides underneath a tractor trailer. They are among the most horrific accidents to occur on highways, often crushing or decapitating the people inside. 

The trailer from Thursday's fatal accident is owned by Drake Enterprises of Lincolnton, which declined to comment. Authorities confirm the trailer did have a rear guard as required by federal law. However, tests performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, along with federal crash data, show the safety measure doesn't always hold up at speeds of 35 miles.

Marianne Karth of Raleigh knows that firsthand.

"We went backwards into the back of a tractor trailer ahead of us," said Karth, describing an accident six years ago that took the life of her 13-year-old daughter Mary, and her 17-year-old daughter AnnaLeah. 

"The guard on the back is known to be too weak," said Karth. "And, so hundreds of people die every year this way."

Underride crashes are at a near 10-year high. In 2017, there were 4,102 fatalities involving large trucks in the U.S. Of those, 775 were from rear and side crashes, according to data from the Department of Transportation and the IIHS.

 "It doesn't have to be fatal," said Brumbelow. "If we have the best designs in place...We have encouraged trailer manufacturers [to upgrade] and many of them have voluntarily upgraded their guards to better designs."

Karth wants that too. She helped get a bill introduced in Congress called the Stop Underrides Act. The bill calls for strengthening guards and requiring side ones, which are currently optional.

"I can't just sit around knowing that engineers have solutions for this," said Karth. "People will continue to die if it's not mandated."

Underride crashes rising

The IIHS compiled the following data, from the Department of Transportation, on crash fatalities involving the rear and side of large trucks. 

The organization's research found underride occurs in 75-85 percent of these crashes, researchers said. The latest data available is from 2017.