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SIDE ISSUE: shielding others from underrun risk

There are an increasing number of pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and trucks getting around our cities, and that makes for a dangerous combination. But there is a simple way to help ease the risk and calm the nerves


Side skirts would probably have prevented a cyclist being killed by this truck’s rear wheels

It’s quite a funny sight to help solve a deadly serious issue: burly truckies riding around inner Melbourne on bicycles, some of them a bit wobbly behind the handlebars as they use one arm to give hand signals.

In the safety video produced for the massive Melbourne Metro rail tunnel project, the truck drivers are learning to see the road from the perspective of bike riders. 

On the flipside in another Metro video, members of the public clamber into a big bonneted truck to realise just how many blind spots there are from behind the steering wheel.

These are good ideas involving so-called ‘vulnerable road users’ – pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and the increasing number of electric scooter riders who don’t have any protection if they go under the side of trucks.

But there is a relatively simple and low cost engineering solution to help prevent tragedies too – side underrun protection on trucks and trailers.

In fact the Melbourne Metro is insisting on side underrun protection being fitted to any heavy vehicles working on the $11 billion project.

This requirement demanded by some big government projects is one of the reasons the Australian Trucking Association recently came out with an updated advisory on how to fit side protection. 

One of Australia’s leading truck safety engineers says the Federal Government should go a step further and make side underrun protection compulsory, as it is in many European and Asian countries.

Dog trailers often need good clearance, but not this much


It’s a pretty shocking statistic from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics: in 2019, 43 vulnerable road users were killed in Australia in incidents involving trucks. 

In total, 17 motorcyclists, 16 pedestrians and 10 cyclists were killed. The majority of fatalities (27) involved rigid trucks (including  truck and dogs, which of course have a drawbar rather than a fifth wheel). The other 16 fatalities involved articulated trucks.

But there is no breakdown on which parts of the trucks and trailers were involved, reflecting the shortage of accident data analysis in Australia. Presumably the majority were at the front, despite Front Underrun Protection Systems (FUPS) on trucks being compulsory since 2012.

But it’s easy to see gaping spaces on the sides of heavy rigid trucks and on trailers, which are plenty big enough for vulnerable road users to ride or fall into and then be run over by the wheels.

This danger means the fitting of Side Underrun Protection Systems (SUPS) is increasingly being requested by its customers, says Melbourne fridge van manufacturer, Fibreglass Transport Equipment (FTE), which has been around for 45 years.

On its website you can see that FTE customers include some of the biggest names in refrigerated trucking, including Scott’s Refrigerated Freightways, Nolan’s, Blenners, Don Watson Transport, Gilberts, Micway, HFS and ERH.

FTE’s Scott Grimme says supermarkets and distributors to fast food outlets have “got heavily on-board” with fitting SUPS.

“Our first client was in 2009 and we have now done more than 200 units with that one company,” Scott says. 

Model design: this side-safe and streamlined FTE fridge van with fibreglass skirts could save both lives and fuel


Grimme was one of the speakers in a session on SUPS at the most recent Technology and Maintenance Conference put on by the Australian Trucking Association in Melbourne.

Along with fellow speakers Greg Brown from Maxitrans and Paccar’s Phil Webb, Grimme was a member of the ATA committee which produced the Technical Advisory Procedure (TAP) on SUPS last year.

The TAP is an update on one produced for trailers in 2012, and includes advice for rigids and prime movers as well as trailers.

It provides guidance for deemed compliance with the United Nations’ UN-ECE regulation R73,  adapted for the huge range of heavy duty trucks and trailers in Australia where both cab-over and bonneted trucks prevail, unlike Europe or the United States where it’s generally one or the other.

Air tanks, fuel tanks, tool boxes and battery boxes can be used as forms of SUPS as long as they comply with certain conditions. 

Elsewhere around trucks and trailers a key requirement is that side protection be no higher than 55 centimetres above ground level, as recommended by the ECE R73.

Grimme says materials for side rails or panels – in increasing order of cost – can be steel, aluminium, Monopan 30 composite panel, or fibreglass. Steel and fibreglass are the heaviest.

With varying degrees of difficulty, side barriers can be hinged to lift up so that the driver can get at the trailer gates, spare wheel carrier, etc.

In regard to rails rather than panels, Grimme acknowledges that vulnerable road users might get caught in rail systems, “but they won’t get dragged under the tyres if it’s all set up in accordance with this TAP, and that’s the main risk”.

He said the TAP is produced mainly with vulnerable road users in mind – not cars, which need much stronger design tolerances. 

Fibreglass Transport Equipment’s Scott Grimme


The figure of 43 vulnerable road users being killed in interactions with trucks in 2019 is horribly similar to the 10-year average up to 2014 – which was 52 motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians killed each year.

That statistic is in a 2014 academic paper by Professors George Rechnitzer and Raphael Grzebieta entitled: ‘So you want to increase cycling on roads: then we need side underrun barriers on all trucks’. 

The authors highlight a case showing how easily fatalities can occur (see the photo of the truck involved). 

“In this case the cyclist was travelling beside a slowly moving rigid truck, with the cyclist apparently falling from his bike (may have slipped on the wet road) and rolling under the rear wheels,” the paper says. 

“The rear wheels ran over the cyclist’s chest, resulting in fatal chest injuries. Had this truck been fitted with side skirts, the cyclist would most likely have been deflected away from the side of the truck, receiving relatively minor injuries as a consequence of the fall only.

“With increased promotion of bicycling on roadways throughout Australia, it is well overdue that we introduce the requirement that all trucks have side underrun barriers. Such barriers are necessary to help prevent cyclists (and pedestrians) from falling under the side and rear wheels of these vehicles when passing and turning.

“Side underrun barriers have been required in Europe for some decades now, and in many parts of Asia.

“While installation of side underrun barriers are being promoted by some heavy vehicle industry groups and regulators (see ATA, 2012) and being fitted, there is an urgent need for comprehensive attachment of these devices to all trucks, particularly if cycling numbers continue to increase.

“The lack of side skirts on trucks poses a double hazard for motorcyclists. They can fall under the truck as described and be crushed by the rear wheels, or they are exposed to severe head and chest injuries by underrunning the rigid tray of the truck.

“In addition, motorcyclists (and cars) are also vulnerable to underrun whilst traveling beside a heavy truck, when either the vehicle turns or during lane-changing manoeuvres.” 

Beats driving: Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel has partnered with the Amy Gillett


All those words are just as relevant today, says paper author Dr George Rechnitzer, adjunct associate professor in Transport and Road Safety Research at the University of New South Wales, and at the Monash University Department of Forensic Medicine. 

Rechnitzer says the lack of mandatory SUPS in Australia is “inexcusable” and “unforgiveable”, and not in keeping with the Safe System and Vision Zero parts of the national and state road safety strategies.

“It’s irresponsible behavior on the part of the regulators,” he says. “There’s been good intentions but no real action.

“It’s not as if side guards are high-cost things … only a couple of thousand dollars for a truck and trailer.

“We’ve got autonomous vehicles but we’re still talking about basic safety engineering which we’ve been arguing about for over 30 years.

“The trucking industry wants to do this but they need a level playing field. They’re not being supported by the regulators.”

In 2009 a Federal Government Regulation Impact Statement for Underrun Protection concluded after a detailed benefit-cost analysis that mandatory front protection was warranted – but not side protection.

It said there were far fewer side fatalities and serious injuries involving cars and motorbikes compared with front impacts, but the cost of fitting side protection was greater. This was a fleet average of about $1,200 for side protection.

While critical of the authorities, Rechnitzer speaks positively of the ATA’s Advisory Procedure on Side Underrun.

“It’s pretty good,” he says. “I think it’s really commendable.”

But he believes the 55cm maximum clearance as recommended by ECE R73 is much too high, and that 35cm should be the rule, with extra space allowed if needed for dog trailers needing to drive over mounds of dirt and gravel, for example.

And while he understands the practicalities of rails, he says they are often too widely spaced and more than two or three are needed so that gaps are narrowed to about 15cm. The norm should be flat, smooth panels. 

Learning about blind spots
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