“If we had just left that restaurant where we stopped for lunch five minutes later, we would not have been there. We would not have been where that truck was….”
It’s hard for Marianne Karth to talk about the underride crash that took her daughters lives. But she soldiers on, fighting for stronger underride guards on the backs and sides of trucks because she knows the bitter truth – her girls didn’t have to die.
“We had moved from Midland Texas, to Rocky Mount, North Carolina in October 2012. For months, we had planned a trip back to Arlington, Texas, to celebrate, as a family, the college graduations of four of our nine children.” Karth was on her way to a wedding too.
“Our oldest daughter, Rebekah, was getting married there one week later on May 11.”
On the 4th of May, 2013 at 1:53 in the afternoon, on her way to Texas, an 18-wheeler sideswiped Karth’s car as traffic unexpectedly slowed on a Georgia highway. The truck spun Karth’s car around and then hit it again, pushing its back end under the truck in front of her. Two of her girls were in the back seat.
Seventeen year old AnnaLeah was killed. Karth says the underside of the truck apparently collided with 13-year old Mary's head. Almost all the bones in Mary’s face were broken. She suffered multiple head traumas, had to be intubated, and had several strokes before she died.
Karth knows that AnnaLeah and Mary might be alive today if the trucking industry had not lobbied for years against the safety changes that might have saved them.
Underride crashes are grotesque. They often decapitate their victims. In an underride crash, the top of the car is sheared off as it slides under a truck, even at a relatively low speed. Underride guards - steel bars that hang down behind 18-wheelers – are supposed to keep it from happening.
Karth remembers a strange silence in the back seat as she struggled to breathe before the Jaws-of-Life cut her from the car. Her 15-year old son survived in the front seat with her. Days later, he would tell his mother that Mary had called for her, asking where they were. “I held her hand,” he said.
Mary was a “Jane Doe,” for a time in a hospital two hours away from the hospital where Karth was recovering from a brain concussion and other injuries. But she didn’t die alone. Her father, the brother who survived the crash, and a Georgia pastor, were at her bedside on the 8th of May 2013 at 12:56 a.m. when she died from her injuries.
Although trucks today are required to have underride guards and some manufacturers are voluntarily making them stronger to meet Canadian standards, The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says both the U.S. and Canadian standards for underride guards are inadequate. There are no federal requirements for underride guards on the sides of tractor trailers and none for box trucks (trucks without trailers).
In the three years since Mary and AnnaLeah died, Karth has had an astonishing amount of success with her efforts to force the trucking industry and the U.S. government to upgrade underride guards While the media usually focuses on famous victims – like comedian Tracy Morgan and actress Jayne Mansfield - Karth’s lack of celebrity doesn’t stop her.
Her name comes up in almost every article on the Internet about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) latest attempt at strengthening underride guard requirements. A quick look at some of Karth’s recent accomplishments on her daughters’ behalf is an eye opener.
- Karth helped organize an underride roundtable for NHTSA in 2016 to discuss stronger underride guards. It brought together safety experts, victims of underride crashes and their families and trucking industry executives.
- At a follow up meeting that she also organized, Karth says members worked on a “consensus public comment” urging NHTSA to strengthen the new rule being considered for rear underride guards. It asked the federal agency to require underride guards to extend along the entire back of a semi-trailer to better protect the public.
- The website named for Karth’s daughters regularly receives about 1,600 visits a month. The site averages 50 to 100 views a day, with traffic increasing considerably when underride accidents occur. Karth’s social media efforts have been so successful; the University Of Washington’s Law School calls them a new, extremely effective way to fight back against corporate interests. Read the law school’s letter praising those efforts.
- In response to letters written to trailer manufacturers by the girls’ father, Jerry Karth, four of the eight largest companies voluntarily strengthened their underride guards. They are still not strong enough. Underride guards on the sides of 18-wheelers and underride guards on single unit trucks are still needed.
A HALF CENTURY OF TRUCKING OPPOSITION
The strong push for underride guards began when actress Jayne Mansfield was killed in an underride crash in 1967. The Marilyn Monroe look alike was well on her way to stardom then. Despite the publicity surrounding the crash that killed her, the fight for underride guards ended abruptly four years later.
On July 12, 1971, the IIHS reported that NHTSA had “abandoned efforts started in 1967” to require underride guards on trucks. The federal agency said they “could not be justified on the basis of cost effectiveness,” adding there was a shortage of “good hard data” about underride crashes.
Karth says the data is underreported. She cites her crash as an example.
“The Georgia crash report didn’t even have a place to indicate an underride,” Karth says. “And the federal crash report said ‘compartment intrusion unknown’,” she adds. Yet pictures of the crash clearly show the back of Karth’s car under the truck.
The trucking industry has long opposed stronger underride guards. Its unwavering opposition between 1967 and 1989 to stronger guards is described in a report by the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan. Despite IIHS tests that clearly demonstrated in 1989 that underride guards were not strong enough, opposition to the recommended improvements “…came from the entire trucking industry….”
NHTSA issued a stronger underride rule that took effect in 1998. It was an improvement, Karth says, but the mandated guards were still causing fatalities. IIHS testing in 2011 and 2013 confirmed the finding.
According to Karth, there is still tough opposition against stronger underride guards from the trucking industry today. “A big tug of war,” is how she describes her fight to require improved underride guards on the sides and backs of large trucks:
“It takes years to get anything done which is why I’m this pesky fly that keeps saying, well, why not?”
A former trucking industry executive has the same question.
Howard Abramson, a top official with the American Trucking Association from 1998 to 2014, wrote a scathing critique of the industry in the New York Times in 2015, aptly titled “The Trucks Are Killing Us.”
“More people will be killed in traffic accidents involving large trucks this year than have died in all domestic airline crashes over the past 45 years, if past trends hold true,” Abramson wrote, adding that fatalities involving trucks rose “17 percent from 2009 to 2013. They reached 3,964 in 2013, Abramson reported, the year that AnnaLeah and Mary were killed.
A 2015 press release from the American Trucking Associations, proudly announced that trucking industry revenues topped $700 billion for the first time in 2014.
While the industry’s grip on NHTSA for the last 5 decades reveals a profits-over-people philosophy, it’s hard to believe that the trucking industry can’t afford adequate underride guards on its trucks.
Attorney Wyatt Wright is a partner in Wayne Wright LLP, a personal injury law firm.
In 2014, the firm was selected for the nation’s highest legal honor – The Litigator Award.
NOTE: Help Marianne Karth in her fight to make sure you and your loved ones are protected from these grotesque crashes. Sign her petition to the U.S. government advocating strong underride bars on the back and sides of large trucks at www.annaleahmary.com