Traffic on Interstate 495 comes to a halt after an accident. Linda Davidson/The Washington Post

As Quon Kwan tells it, he didn’t plan on becoming a whistleblower.

He had retired after a long career with the federal government, earned a master’s degree in divinity and moved into a senior living community in Maryland. At 75, he had few reasons to think about the job he once held as an engineer for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Then, one day earlier this spring, Kwan received an email from a mother who lost two children in a crash that ended with her family’s car partially beneath a tractor-trailer.

Before I tell you what happened next and why it matters, you should know there is a term for those types of collisions in which vehicles and people end up under large trucks – “underride crashes.” If you are not familiar with that phrase, you are not alone. People who have lost loved ones to those types of crashes will tell you they weren’t familiar with it either until they were all too familiar with it.

You should also know this: I have written about people (too many people) who have been killed on roads in the Washington region and the need for more measures to make streets safer nationwide, which is how I learned about Kwan. In the past month, he has provided a written statement to a government advisory committee and spoken to road safety advocates, offering information on a public safety issue that he says the U.S. Department of Transportation kept from the public.

When I spoke to Kwan recently, he said the email he received from that mother ultimately compelled him to speak out about a research project he had managed on side guards, which are barriers that block the gaps on the lower sides of large trucks.

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“That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, my project. My project has real, personal implications. It could prevent the death of innocent people out there,’” Kwan told me.

This week, crash survivors and people who have lost loved ones on the nation’s roads convened in D.C. for the 2024 Capitol Hill Roadway Safety Advocacy Days. They came together to advocate alongside one another for safer streets. But in the weeks leading up to that public gathering, private conversations have been occurring among some of those families because of the information Kwan has brought forward on sideguards.

In a notarized statement he submitted to the Advisory Committee on Underride Protection – which exists to provide information, advice and recommendations to the Secretary of Transportation on safety regulations related to underride crashes – Kwan details the project he managed and raises concerns that the most important parts of the final report were suppressed.

He explains that in 2017, he proposed that his agency fund research to evaluate the effects of combining side guards with aerodynamic skirts on tractor-trailers and single-unit trucks. He says he regarded the cost-benefit analysis as the most important part of the project because “if side guards would both protect the safety of vulnerable road users while at the same time offer improved fuel efficiency and reduce fuel costs, the industry might adopt such side guards voluntarily.” (Other countries require trucks to have side guards. The United States does not).

The research found that adding those side guards to trucks would be cost-beneficial, Kwan says. He describes sharing that information during a presentation with staff at the American Trucking Association and receiving negative feedback. Later, he says, he also encountered resistance from a senior official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who urged him not to release the report.

When Kwan retired in 2019, he left the report complete and awaiting final approval for public release, he says. When he recently went to read the report published on the DOT’s website, he says, he was “shocked and appalled.”

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“Most of the chapters, including the critical one on cost-benefit analysis, have been stripped out and the report now is nothing more than just a literature review,” his statement reads. He goes on to say: “Suppressing this research was unacceptable and wrong. A new semitrailer costs tens of thousands of dollars, and adding a side guard to it costs mere pennies on the dollar to save an innocent victim’s life. I would pay a penny for an engineering solution. The ATA didn’t want to do that. The cost of their influence with officials in the U.S. DOT will be borne by many more innocent victims.”

He notes in his statement that the research, which was conducted by Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, was funded by $200,000 in taxpayer money.

“More than public safety was harmed,” he says. “U.S. taxpayers did not receive what they paid for. This constitutes waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer money.”

On Wednesday, a letter signed by about two dozen people was sent to the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation, citing Kwan’s statement. The letter calls for an investigation into whether the DOT “engaged in misconduct and abuse, breached ethics rules and agency standards of conduct, and violated federal law when they suppressed taxpayer-financed research on reducing pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities in crashes with the sides of large commercial freight trucks.”

The signatures on the letter belong to a former NHTSA official, people associated with national organizations and individuals who have lost loved ones in underride crashes. Several are signed, “in memory of.” One is signed “bereaved father of.”

A DOT spokesperson said because of the nature of the allegations from Kwan and the department’s standard processes, the matter has been referred to the Department’s Office of Inspector General.

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That spokesperson also provided a statement pointing out the many actions the current administration has taken when it comes to addressing underrides.

“Delivering on several mandates from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, DOT has taken additional steps to gather information and data to support evidence-based decision-making concerning rear and side underride guards, such as establishing DOT’s Advisory Committee on Underride Protection, which includes families of underride crash victims, truck safety organizations, vehicle crash investigators, law enforcement, labor organizations, motor vehicle engineers, insurance industry, motor carriers, independent owner-operators, and truck and trailer manufacturers,” the statement reads. “NHTSA will continue to meet with all stakeholders and crash victim family members to improve safety and reduce fatalities.”

Marianne Karth is the woman who emailed Kwan. She had been looking for him for months to discuss his research project when she found him through a website for biblical counselors.

Karth became a road safety advocate in an all-too-common way – through loss. She was driving three of her children in May 2013 when traffic slowed and a truck hit the family’s car, causing it to spin and slide partially under a tractor-trailer. Karth and her son were sitting in the front of the car and survived. Her daughters, 13-year-old Mary and 17-year-old AnnaLeah, were in the back seat and did not.

Karth told me recently that May used to be her favorite month: “It is now one day after another after another of horrible memories.”

Karth’s experience and the experience of others who have lost loved ones in crashes with trucks – including the family of U.S. Diplomat Sarah Langenkamp who left Ukraine only to die after the driver of a truck struck her bike on a Maryland road – is why Kwan’s statement matters. We can debate and disagree on traffic safety measures, but to do that in a way that moves us forward, we need to first be given all the information that is available.

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The trucking industry has publicly pushed against side guard requirements and federal officials have pointed to the high costs and low benefits of them. An advance notice of proposed rulemaking released last year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that a side underride requirement would save about 17 lives and prevent 69 serious injuries a year at an annual cost between $970 million and $1.2 billion. A person familiar with Kwan’s research project said the above analysis didn’t take into account findings from it, including potential fuel savings or the more than 100 pedestrian and bicyclist deaths that could be prevented each year with side guards.

Large trucks, and those who operate them, play a crucial role in our economy. Kwan knows that better than most. He spent nearly 20 years working for the Department of Transportation, and he speaks about trucks with reverence.

“Every piece of food you get, any clothing, anything you buy in the store was delivered by a truck,” he told me. “People don’t think about that.”

When I asked him why he decided to speak out after receiving that email, he said the bible talks about bringing light to the darkness, and he believes information paid for by the public should be made public. He noted that he personally has nothing to gain.

“I really don’t care for publicity,” he said. “But I do care for public safety.”


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