FOX6 Investigators expose hazard on the highway, federal government finally pushing for change

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- A FOX6 investigation has uncovered a real safety concern on the roads, and even through the government knows about it, nothing is being done!

Twenty-three years ago, Brenda Jones was nine months pregnant. Four days before she went into labor, her baby boy's father was killed in a car accident. His car ran into the back of a truck.

"I raised him as a single parent for half of his life and every day kept saying 'just let me get him. Let me be okay and keep me here until he`s grown,'" Jones said.

After high school, Jones' son enrolled at Purdue University. He played on the varsity bowling team.

This spring, he came home from college for a visit.

On the way to see his grandparents, he was killed in a motorcycle crash.

"I never thought he'd be gone too. On my birthday," Brenda Jones said.

Two months later, Brenda Jones says she had finally stopped crying. That's when the phone rang.

"It was someone from my husband`s work, asking if my husband was here -- they`ve been trying to reach him, they couldn`t reach him," Brenda Jones remembers.

Jones says she remembers hearing about a crash on the news. She says she just knew.

"I just -- I ran to the scene," Jones said.

Ben Jones was pinned underneath a semi on I-894.

Cameras caught the accident on tape. The video shows the semi moving at a snail's pace. While other drivers managed to swerve around him, Jones' husband wasn't so lucky. His pickup truck slid under the semi. Ben Jones was trapped and unconscious. He was prounounced dead at the scene.

"We just couldn`t keep him long enough to survive the crash," Jones said.

Witnesses said a special safety bar on the back of the semi had failed, which is how Jones' pickup truck got lodged underneath.

"I asked and was told that the bar had broken off," Brenda Jones said.

The bar is called an underride guard, and most semi-trailers are required to have them. The underride guards hang down off the backs of trailers, and they're supposed to keep cars from sliding underneath a truck during an accident.

However, time and time again, research shows they don't work. Hundreds of drivers die every year -- violent, preventable deaths.

"They had tried to help him at the scene. They had tried, but they couldn`t get to him because he ended up underneath the truck," Jones said.

No one routinely keeps track of how many people die this way. In 2011, the last time anyone counted, 260 people were found to have died in rear-end underride crashes -- two from Wisconsin.

That's one of the reasons State Patrol Inspector Mark Barlar takes his job so seriously. It's his job to make sure the bumper is no more than 22 inches off the ground, and the red and white candy stripe is visible. There can be no cracks, and no missing bolts.

However, even Barlar admits the closest inspection might not be enough to keep drivers safe. There's no way to test the guard to see if it really would hold up in a bad crash.

"There is no way for me to test structural integrity of it. If you could move it by hand that would be a bad thing," Barlar said.

Even if the bumper meets all the legal requirements, you could still be in danger.

Matt Brumbelow is a senior research engineer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. This spring, he and his colleagues released a study that concluded the current safety standards are not good enough.

"Roughly 3-5 years ago when we started seeing some of the crash data that made us wonder if something else could be done," Brumbelow said.

According to their findings, federal laws regulating semi-truck bumpers aren't cutting it. Their research was based on these crash tests. Even at speeds as slow as 30 miles per hour, the results were deadly. That's why Canadian guards are required to be twice as strong as the ones traveling on U.S. highways.

"The guard just breaks off the trailer. Canada said 'these aren't safe. We're going to make them safer,'" Brumbelow said.

Since 2011, the IIHS has been petitioning the federal government to make the same change in the United States -- to make drivers on our roads safer, but so far, nothing has been done -- so some manufacturers have taken safety into their own hands -- voluntarily making bumpers stronger.

"You want to put the safest vehicles you can on the road," Mark Matthiae, the president of Crystal Finishing in Wausau.

After seeing the videos, his company decided they wanted their trucks to have the safest guards out there, so they teamed up with Canadian manufacturer MANAC -- which has the strongest bumpers on the market.

"I just don`t understand why the manufacturers wouldn`t want to make that change. It looks to me like very little cost difference. In fact, it could almost be a cost savings if it`s designed properly," Matthiae said.

It makes sense to Brenda Jones too.

"If it means that maybe somebody can help someone else...it`s too late for us," Jones said.

Jones is a single mother...for the second time.

"You hear this little voice standing next to you say 'I can`t go to the father-daughter dance anymore or a little boy is having a meltdown because his dad had promised him fireworks on his first day of kindergarten, and Dad`s not here," Jones said.

The day before he died, Brenda Jones' husband put a flagpole in the family's front yard alongside a bench in memory of their son. It has now become a memorial for both of them.

"He should be here. There's no reason. They both should be here," Jones said.

After three years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has finally agreed to consider tougher standards for underride guards. Nothing is in place yet, but once the new rules take effect, experts say it will still be about 10 more years until all trucks on the road meet the new safety requirements.

14 comments

  • Logan

    There’s an easier, cheaper and better fix. Pay attention on the road and you won’t hit an 80,000 lb truck covered in dot required safety lights and reflectors. In attentive drivers will still be killed no matter how much money you force private individuals and companies to pay in unnecessary regulation.

    • Theresa

      My thoughts exactly! How many of these people who died were talking on the phone, texting, or otherwise not paying attention and/or just plain driving stupidly by tailgating?

  • Cory Lohmeyer

    look at the cost of fuel?????? Cheapest fuel to get but like always the government has to have there hands in it too. greed is killing people. forcing companies to spend less on equipment so they can earn a buck…

  • eric allen

    you know those big trucks and trailer people are suppose to avoid (not hit) pay attention problem fixes itself. I am a truck driver a 18 year old kid reading a text message from his mother saying slow down hit me and died. we do not need you to blame us because someone else mistakes. take reasonably for your own actions. it is a shame it happens but it is your own fault if you hit the back of a truck.

  • Cheri

    I’d say more of a concern is the cheap trucking companies that put re-tread tires on their trucks.. when the tire goes the whole tread falls off that tire and creates a very dangerous situation for other drivers trying to avoid such a big / sharp hazard. I’ve seen a re-tread blow out and it almost caused quite the pile-up with the garbage it left all over the highway. I think the rear guard is not as important as the re-tread tire issue!

    • Samantha Hillman

      Semi trucks and trailers are not the only vehicles with retreads. A lot of used tired places will refurbish/retread tires for everyday vehicles. Same as any other tire, a blow out happens for a many of reasons, just is more dramatic and dangerous because of all amount of weight they may be carrying.

  • liz

    I don’t think anyone is blaming the semi driver. From what I’m reading they know its the guys fault but think if there was a safety bar the truck wouldn’t have gone under the semi and would have had a chance.

    • eric allen

      if he would have slowed down he would not have gone under it. and if he hit a mini van, we would not be blaming the mini van. we would be putting the blame where it belongs. in a world where everyone is looking to blame some one so they can sue.

  • eddie evans

    Well I’ve been driving for 23 years, and you really have to be moving to go under a trailer, now I’m not saying that there’s not faulty trailers out there because there is. The bumper was designed for being a bumper not to be missunderstood for a battering ram. Now they are desighned to hold the truck and trailer to a dock, and let me tell you, you are not moveing. The problem is to many mixed speeds, for example truck speed 55, car speed 65, and then you got slower trucks that are goverened to 62 and lower. So you got a car moveing at 65 -70 mph coming up on a truck moving 60 or lower. Answer not good, it’s called feet per second. Pay attention to the road , start enforcing the laws on the road for the cars . 6 out of ten cars will be texting, jabbering and whatnot in there car not watching the road.

  • Brian Carlson

    Ok, so make it stronger, like that of a Sherman tank. Then when they speed, tailgate and kill themselves. I guess you won’t need to repair your trailer. It will just be their wreckage and casualties. The trucker can drive away. No damage to the trailer. The truck driver will always be absolved of any wrong doing. Rear-end collisions are their fault 100 percent of the time. A new bumper does not stop reckless stupidity.

  • janet gambrell

    Texting while driving, speeding, taking selfies, not paying attention. Drive under an 80,000 lb tractor-trailer and the end results are not pretty. Do not blame the big rigs when you drive under the back of a trailer. ALL drivers have an obligation to maintain control of their vehicles. Your “investigative” report is biased.

  • Carrie

    Why not do a REAL story instead of a slander piece. Had that driver been paying attention to what was going on around him, the accident would not have happened. So SICK of big trucks getting the blame for other’s mistakes. Look at the real statistics, as cars are at fault 80% of the time in fatal accidents between trucks and cars, NOT the semi.

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