Carnage on the Highways

The Karth family – a Rocky Mount, North Carolina family who lost their two teenage daughters in a 2013 truck crash – will travel to Washington, D.C. Friday March 4 to deliver a Vision Zero petition with over 20,000 signatures to the Department of Transportation.


Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death in the United States with 33,000 people killed in crashes each year.

The Department of Transportation currently makes highway safety rules based on a cost benefit analysis resulting in many highway safety measures being blocked.

The petition, launched in 2015, urges Department of Transportation and the Office of Management and Budget to change that practice, and move toward a Vision Zero safety strategy model with goals of: Zero Deaths, Zero Serious Injuries, Zero Fear of Traffic.

The petition calls for changing rulemaking policy to move away from a cost/benefit model and adopt a more humanistic, rational Vision Zero safety strategy model that will impact all DOT safety regulation.

Specifically, the petition also calls for applying Vision Zero principles initiating rulemaking to require forward collision avoidance and mitigation braking on all new large trucks and applying Vision Zero principles by requiring crash test-base performance standards for truck side and rear underride guards.

In addition to delivering the petitions to and meeting with Transportation Department Director of Public Engagement Bryna Helfer and a group of policy officials, the Karth family will meet with several Members of Congress and their staff including Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) and Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), and Congressmen Matt Cartwright (D-Pennsylvania), Renee Ellmers (R-North Carolina) and George Holding (R-North Carolina).

In May 2013, the two Karth children — AnnaLeah (17) and Mary (13) Karth — were riding in the back seat of the family car.

Their mother — Marianne Karth — was driving. Her son — Caleb — was riding in the front passenger seat.

The family was heading to Texas to celebrate the graduation of the older Karth children. (Marianne and her husband Jerry have nine children.) They were driving through Georgia, travelling on a divided highway — with two lanes going south and two lanes heading north. They were in the right lane heading south.

“We made it to a point where we came upon slow traffic,” Marianne Karth said in an interview last week. “There was an accident ahead. It was two hours earlier two miles ahead. We were in the right lane. We later found out from a truck behind us that a truck was coming up on our left side. He wasn’t slowing down.”

“It was around Greensboro, Georgia. The truck that was coming up on us hit our car and spun us around. He wasn’t going to be able to stop his truck in time. The charge against the truck driver was failure to maintain lane. Yes, he was coming up on the left lane. And he hit us, it spun us around, he hit us again. I don’t know if you have seen the pictures of the accident. But it pushed us backwards under the truck in front of us. And Mary and AnnaLeah were in the back seat.”

The car was pushed back side first under the rear of the truck in front of you. And the two girls in the back seat of your car were killed?

“Yes,” Karth said. “The underride guard on the back of the truck failed. That was a revelation learning about that and how the current federal standards are weak and ineffective.”

“We have talked with engineers who have ideas on how to make the underride protection effective. You should be able to survive rear ending a truck.”

“AnnaLeah died from mechanical asphyxia. She was crushed so she couldn’t breath. From the autopsy, she was scalped. Mary’s whole face was crushed. All of the bones in her face were broken. Her carotid artery was severed. She had several strokes. Head injury.”

“They had to take all four of us with the jaws of life. I felt like I couldn’t breath. It took them about a half an hour to get me out. I was the last one out.”

“My son had a concussion. He went in the same ambulance with the truck driver who hit us. It was very traumatic. He went to the emergency room. They discharged him. It took them a long time for them to locate my husband to be able to speak with him. I couldn’t take care of my son. Here we are in Georgia where we knew nobody. My son was able to remember his brother’s phone number in Texas. They were able to tell them where we were. For hours, the condition of the girls was unknown and where they were.”

When did you learn about your daughters?

“It was so traumatic. I know that I had this sense of not being able to hear AnnaLeah. I couldn’t hear their voices. I didn’t know what happened. Our pastor in North Carolina and our previous one in Texas, they called pastors in Georgia. And one came to the hospital to be with Caleb and I. Once Jerry found out about AnnaLeah, he called and talked with the nurse. He had the nurse and pastor be with me and my husband told me on the phone. That’s how I found out. Mary died a few days later from her injuries. She was in a hospital two hours away from where I was. And I never did get to go and see her. She was 13 years old — all by herself for a while. She was a Jane Doe.”

Marianne Karth has been campaigning ever since the accident for stronger truck underride guards.

More than 400 automobile occupants are killed every year from underride accidents.

“The trucking industry has been fighting against truck underride prevention guards for decades,” said auto safety advocate Byron Bloch. “When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was first established in the late-1960’s, one of its first rulemaking efforts was for underride guards for trucks, trailers, and buses. The trucking industry fought the rulemaking from its inception. Ironically, the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association (TTMA) back in 1970 stated that they could do it, and make rear underride guards that could withstand at least 50,000 pounds of resistive force, but then they lobbied for a delay. Politics intervened, and underride guards were delayed for 20-plus years.”

Because of this needless 20-year delay by NHTSA and the industry, I urged Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder to include truck underride in her December 1991 Hearings on “Automotive Safety: Are We Doing Enough to Protect America’s Families?”

“I testified at the Hearings about truck underride and how to help resolve the issue, prompting Congresswoman Schroeder to demand that NHTSA finally issue a standard.”

“However, when NHTSA issued the new Standards FMVSS 223 and 224 in 1995, it required a minimal resistive load of only 22,400 lbs., that could be as high as 22 inches above the ground, and did not extend the protection fully across the entire rear of the trailer. Trucks were excluded because, in NHTSA’s strange rationale, only 25 percent of underride fatalities involved trucks. These FMVSS 223-224 rear guards were thus too weak, too high above the ground, and not full-width in their effectiveness to keep cars from crashing deeply beneath the trailer body. The deaths and severe injuries continued, despite the NHTSA requirement – which is only a minimum.”

“What is needed are rear underride prevention guards that can withstand at least 70,000 lbs. across the entire rear of trucks and trailers, and that are 16 inches above the ground and that are strong from corner to corner across the entire rear of the trucks and trailers. And there needs to be underride prevention guards to prevent passenger vehicles from under riding beneath the tall sides of trucks and trailers, inasmuch as side underride tragedies are virtually as prevalent as rear underride accidents.”

Bloch says that about 225 fatalities occur per year in rear underride accidents, and about the same 200-plus for side underride tragedies.

“This epidemic can be stopped, and must be stopped by a stronger NHTSA safety standard, and by an industry willing to cooperate,” Bloch said. “All trucks and trailers must soon be equipped with strong, effective rear underride guards and side underride guards, all of which is technically feasible and economical.”

Marianne Karth has helped organize an underride roundtable this coming May at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety at their Vehicle Research Center.

“There is going to be a crash test of a new design,” Karth said. “We have engineers, government officials, trucking industry representatives, safety advocates trying to come together and come up with a plan to get the most effective solution. We also inspired a senior design team at Virginia Tech. They took on underride design for their senior project this year. They are going to be presenting their design.”

“But despite all of these moves forward, if the rulemaking is still held back by delays and opposition, like it has been in the past, all this work will not go anywhere. We can’t depend on voluntary improvement to get everybody on board. Then there is the issue of retrofitting. We have been working with an engineer who has designed one that combined side and rear underguards. They can be retrofitted to existing trailers.”

“If there is still resistance, all this work will get us nowhere.”

“Who suffers as a result of all of these delays?” Marianne asks. “This rule back in 1998 – if the research that was known was included to improve the rule at that point, that was before Mary was born. There could have been stronger guards. My daughters might not be dead if all of this nonsense didn’t keep happening — year, after year, after year.”

[For the complete q/a format transcript of the Interview with Marianne Karth, see 30 Corporate Crime Reporter 10(12), March 7, 2016, print edition only.]

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter..