By preventing pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists from coming into contact with a large truck’s rear wheels, side guards on waste collection trucks can reduce injuries and fatalities, according to studies by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.
Across the U.S., policymakers have been weighing whether or not to implement side guard mandates. Harvard University recently mandated the implementation of side guards on large trucks operating on the campus. Boston’s City Council passed a truck side guard ordinance back in 2014, making it the first city in the nation to pass such a mandate. Also, New York City has mandated for all eligible trucks in the city fleet and the waste industry to use side guards by January 1, 2024.
With Boston, Harvard and New York City’s mandates, the research and guidelines for the use of side guards came from the work done by Volpe. Volpe has conducted extensive research, which shows that “during a crash with a truck that has high ground clearance, vulnerable road users can fall into the exposed space between the front and rear wheels and suffer fatal crushing injuries,” according to its website. Side guards cover that exposed space, shielding people from being swept underneath the truck’s rear wheels.
Side guards can be retrofitted onto existing trucks or designed for new trucks as well. In 2016, Action Carting, one of the New York City’s largest haulers, took advantage of the incentive program offered by the city and applied side guards on 23 trucks, explains Sal Mastriani, director of risk management at Action Carting. In 2017, the company fitted about 125 trucks with side guards.
“We decided, why wait for the deadline, which is 2024,” says Mastriani. “We felt it was necessary to implement the side guards onto all of our packers immediately. As of March 2018, 100 percent of our packer trucks were fitted with side guards.”
“We are actually hoping they move the date  up a little bit,” adds Mastriani. “We are ready, and we feel that it’s very important to the industry for everyone to comply with this.”
Across the industry, the use of side guards has not become a universally accepted benefit. For some companies working in less densely populated areas, the need may not feel as urgent. For companies considering the use of side guards, some of the pushback is that the specifications are not clear or standardized. Using the wrong materials can impact the weight of a collection truck, and making the modifications to an entire fleet can prove costly.
Companies need to know exactly what the expected specifications will be for such a mandate to be successful. “That is where having that Volpe standard is more useful, because they do have something that they can send them to which will literally talk about how high off the ground the side guard needs to be, what kind of impact it should be able to absorb and those kinds of technical things,” says Anthony Hargis, national safety director at NWRA.
According to Hargis, widespread side guard use is on the horizon. “Currently, truck manufacturers, or body manufacturers, add side guards as an accessory. Using my crystal ball, I can kind of see into the future that probably five or 10 years down the line, it is going to be something that becomes a standard application on the body of a truck,” says Hargis, who notes they have become the standard in many countries.
Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) also points to the Volpe research and guidelines as the best resource for companies interested in implementing side guards. “One of the suggestions that SWANA makes in its safety messaging is to consider adding side guards to their trucks as a means of reducing the severity of incidents involving bicycles,” says David Biderman, SWANA CEO and executive director, who calls side guards “common-sense safety devices.”
SWANA has been making that recommendation for several years through its safety trainings and events. With the new New York City legislation, SWANA recommends companies get an early start. “Consider not waiting until the year the deadline is, but put them on now,” says Biderman.
Side guards are not the primary safety priority for NWRA or SWANA, but both associations agree the features can be helpful. While side guards do not provide a one-stop safety solution, they can work hand-in-hand with customer education to help increase safety.
Action Carting has done outreach through its social media channels to let people know both why the side guards are on the trucks and why it is important to keep their distance from large trucks on the road. “I think somehow that [message] has gotten lost over the years,” says Mastriani.
“It’s not that trucks are driving dangerously, but there are many blind spots on the truck. So, that is why the side guards are very important,” explains Mastriani. “It’s not meant as the number one safety [feature] of the truck, but what it does is protect the pedestrians and also protect the trucks from people getting too close to the wheels.”
Regarding the issue of cost—that can be a real concern. But, it’s worth it.
“There is a cost to all of the companies. Safety definitely costs money, but in the long run, we feel that this will prevent many injuries and possibly fatalities. It is definitely worth it,” says Mastriani. “As far as it adding weight to the truck, they are made of aluminum. It doesn’t add much weight to the truck at all, and you can’t even put a dollar amount on the issue. For anyone who says that it does add weight to the truck, or it does cost additional money, the cost benefit is so much greater on the safety end than it is on the other end.”