Will New Safety Technology Make Bull Bars Extinct?

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Attempts to Protect Your Truck May Be Hindering Vital Safety Features

Bull bars, a staple of many pickups and over-the-road semi-trucks, are on the verge of becoming extinct. This is thanks to new and often mandatory safety equipment, questionable crash safety data, and new laws aimed at restricting their size and shape. Yet, they aren’t going away without controversy from owners who simply want to protect their investments.

Wyoming resident John Carey lives in a mostly rural part of the country. When he bought his new $50,000 2016 Ford F-150 XLT, he worried about protecting it, as most of us would.

“We have more hazards out here than just what’s on the road,” says Carey. “People hit deer, elk and loose cows all the time.”

As a result, Carey added a $989.99 Westin HDX bull bar to the front of his pickup truck. Yet, by adding this bull bar, Carey likely made his truck less safe in the event of a crash.

New Safety Technology Collides with Bull Bars

The bull bar was invented decades ago as a way to protect trucks from roaming cattle, or in the case of Australia’s outback, kangaroos. Believe it or not, the cute little creatures accounted for nine out of 10 of the 20,000 animal-related accidents reported in 2015. Through the years, the steel bars saved many cars and trucks from being completely destroyed. They are also a popular accessory on police and military vehicles. However, technology is disrupting the way they work.

Nearly every truck manufacturer offers new safety equipment on their trucks nowadays. However, this safety technology simply doesn’t work as well with the bars installed. For example, the steel bars can cause a multitude of issues, like airbags being delayed in their deployment, forward collision warning systems nullified due to blocked sensors, and crumple zones built into the truck’s design being obstructed.

 

‘Bull bars could affect the deployment of airbags in a crash, or hinder the sensors for new technologies intended to prevent crashes altogether.’

 

“You don”t want to add anything to the front of the vehicle that the manufacturer did not intend to be there,” says Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). “Bull bars could affect the deployment of airbags in a crash, or hinder the sensors for new technologies intended to prevent crashes altogether.”

Furthermore, some features like Ford’s Forward Collision Warning and Emergency Braking systems can be turned off. This allows a truck owner to attach items such as a snow plow to the front of the truck, without interfering with its systems. Of course, this is a temporary solution that presents a trade-off between protecting against a deer, or averting a deadly collision.

bull bars

Safety Technology Really Works

A 2013 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study on accidents found that automatic braking and forward collision-warning systems would have prevented at least 700,000 accidents. Automatic braking by itself would have prevented 40 percent, while forward collision warning accounts for a 23 percent drop.

Specifically, automatic braking has proven to be so effective that in September 2015 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the IIHS announced an agreement with automakers to make the technology standard on all models.

“The success of front crash prevention represents a big step toward safer roads,” says IIHS Chief Research Officer David Zuby in an IIHS report. “As this technology becomes more widespread, we can expect to see noticeably fewer rear-end crashes. The same goes for the whiplash injuries that often result from these crashes and can cause a lot of pain and lost productivity.”

Ford agrees with the IIHS analysis.

“Aftermarket front end modifications such as bull bars can negatively impact the performance of both ACC and Pre-Collision Assist,” Ford says in a statement. “They can impact the performance of both the forward-facing radar and camera. From a radar perspective, any material that is near the radar beam will negatively impact performance. Similarly, any material that projects above the hood would negatively impact the camera-sensing capabilities.”

Westin, a well-known aftermarket company and maker of Carey’s bar, said they don’t recommend these systems on higher-trim-level trucks with advanced safety systems. We personally reached out to Westin, and they told us they don’t recommend bull bars on anything but base level trucks.

Regulations Already Impact Bull Bars

The use of bull bars has been a source of controversy for years, and the increase of pedestrian accidents is yet another strike against them. This controversy was at its height in the mid-2000s, when both Australia and the European Union considered banning them.

At the source of the controversy was a truck’s front-end rigidity and how they were causing harm to pedestrians. With bull bars providing the most rigidity in the front end, they were quickly targeted by legislators attempting to improve pedestrian safety.

Ongoing crash tests and analysis of accident data led to both countries enacting laws against them.

bull bars

For European truck owners, there is a European Union Directive mandating the structure, dimensions, materials, design and method for attachment of new bull bars. This directive changed the squared, protruding nature of bull bars, making them more like protective cages around the front end.

In Australia, a law was passed in 2003 that mandated changes to their size and design (similar to the EU directive). However, the ambiguous nature of the language caused enforcement issues, according to a 2016 New South Wales Centre for Road Safety document. There is currently an exemption in place until September 2017 for bull bar owners to comply.

The Future Ahead of Us

While these regulations do not apply to the U.S., one could argue they indirectly impacted American consumers. Many bull bar designs sold domestically now look like protective cages rather than the taller, three-bar design of old.

The academic evidence and increased use of safety technology certainly seems to spell the end of bull bars. But for truck owners like Carey, it isn’t so simple. He has a different take on his accessory.

“I’m just trying to protect my investment,” says Carey of his bull bar. “I want it to be the last truck I own.”

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