It goes without saying that every university wants to keep its students out of harm’s way. In mid-May, the University of Washington (UW) took a simple, tangible step toward achieving that goal by installing side guards on each of the 31 box trucks in its campus fleet. Doing so should greatly reduce the number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed in side-impact crashes.
According to UW Director of Transportation Josh Kavanagh, installing the side guards was an easy decision, once he learned about them — on Twitter, of all places.
“I picked up a tweet about what had happened in Boston [last fall] in terms of city commitment to truck guards,” says Kavanaugh. “I saw that it was a simple, no-brainer solution. You can, for a very, very low cost, make the difference between potential accident and potential tragedy. Why wouldn’t you?”
Side guards work by filling the space between front and rear wheels on heavy commercial trucks with high ground clearance such as delivery and garbage trucks and tractor-trailers. Without them, pedestrians and bicyclists can fall under the truck and into the path of the rear wheels, which is often fatal. This typically happens in left and right hook situations where a turning truck hits a bicyclist traveling straight or a pedestrian crossing the street.
The cost of each side guard varied by truck size, but Kavanagh says UW paid in the range of $1,500 per truck. It’s a small price to pay to reduce the risk of killing one of the tens of thousands of students buzzing around campus each day.
“The campus environment is in many ways similar to or perhaps even an amplification of the urban environment in general,” says Kavanagh. “We’ve got a large numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists intermingling with service vehicles and doing so often in a fairly distracted state. In that environment we try to minimize the risks.”
According to the U.S. DOT’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, 556 pedestrians and cyclists in the U.S. were killed in side-impact collisions with trucks in a “recent” five-year period. (Volpe doesn’t specify which years.)
Side guards have been mandatory on most trucks in the United Kingdom and all trucks in the European Union since 1986 and 1989. Since enacting the mandate, the U.K. has had 61 percent fewer cyclist fatalities and 20 percent fewer pedestrian fatalities in side-impact collisions with trucks.
Despite their track record overseas, side guards have been slow to catch on in the U.S.
“What you prioritize is what you get,” says Volpe engineer Alex Epstein. “If you start prioritizing pedestrian and bicycle safety, you’ll start seeing some technology answers that have already been adopted elsewhere in the world.”
A few U.S. cities have introduced side guards. Last October, Boston made side guards mandatory on all city-contracted vehicles weighing over 10,000 pounds. Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., have required them on some city-owned trucks since 2008. New York City is currently piloting guards on 240 city vehicles. Their city council is expected to pass legislation that would require side guards on all city-owned trucks and private trash haulers, which amounts to an estimated 10,000 trucks.
Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made an official recommendation to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to mandate side guards on all new trucks weighing over 10,000 pounds. The NHTSA has not done so yet.
Epstein is not surprised. He thinks the adoption of side guards will be a grassroots-up movement, the way most bike and pedestrian safety improvements have been in the U.S.
“Think of NACTO, think of Vision Zero … bottom-up initiatives we’ve been seeing that then maybe get mirrored at the federal level,” Epstein explains.
Also like NACTO (the National Association of City Transportation Officials) and Vision Zero, Epstein sees truck side guards as a critical part of the evolving transportation safety net.
“It’s important to have multiple layers [of safety]. Infrastructure is one way to avoid crashes and ideally we avoid all crashes. But when they do occur they shouldn’t be fatal … side guards are the last line of defense.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.