TAMPA - Cars are vastly safer these days because of design improvements that protect the occupants in ever more serious crashes. But all that technology built into the bumper, the chassis and the frame are useless when a car slides under the trailer of a large truck.
"I still see him under that truck" said Sieni Eberhardt whose husband, a South Florida police officer was killed after driving into a stopped semi truck on a dark night in 2001.
An average of 400 people are killed this way each year. 5,000 are injured.
Last year, the ABC Action News I-Team investigated under-ride guards, the metal bars that are supposed to keep smaller vehicles from sliding underneath tractor trailers and large trucks.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, at the time, found most under-ride guards were inadequate-- too flimsy to stop a car even at moderate speeds.
"When an under-ride guard fails, it's a very devastating crash. The first point of impact is on the windshield. Then the top of the passenger compartment is sheared off" says David Zuby of the IIHS.
And even though Federal standards in the US haven't gotten tougher, most manufacturers are building stronger under-ride guards on their own.
New crash tests of eight different manufacturers found all performed well when the car, a 2010 Chevy Malibu hit the truck dead center at 35 miles per hour.
"All of the trailers in this series of test had guards that met the Canadian standards that require those guards be stronger than the current regulation in the United States" said Zuby.
Even when just half the width of the car connects with the trailer, all but one kept the car from sliding underneath.
But when only 30 percent of the car hits, all but one model failed. The driver in these cases would not likely survive.
"Outside the main vertical support, there isn't enough additional support to keep the bar from bending forward allowing the car to slide under in a devastating way" said Zuby.
Safety has come a long way since the 1970's when under-ride guards routinely failed, but the insurance industry wants even more improvements. They point to the Trailmobile models built in Canada that protected the occupants in each of the IIHS tests.
These new improvements do nothing to make the many thousands of older trucks on the road any safer. The insurance industry is pushing the federal government to require retrofitting to strengthen older under-ride guards, but the trucking industry is resisting those requirements.
David Strickland, an Administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which governs underride guard standards, sent the I-Team the following statement:
"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is deeply committed to improving safety and reducing the number of deaths and injuries on our roadways, including those involving large trucks. The agency is actively working to improve truck underride protection and recently completed an in-depth field analysis -which was published yesterday- to support potential changes to existing federal safety standards. The driving public should know that we are actively working to address the issues raised in IIHS's report and that their safety will always be our top priority."
Follow this link to read the latest research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: