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It’s Time for Semi Truck Manufacturers to Step Up Fuel Tank Design

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On January 15, 2015, news outlets in Dallas, Texas reported that a semi truck carrying 48,000 pounds of tomatoes experienced a tire blowout, and crashed into a concrete barrier. The collision ruptured the fuel tank. The gas spilled onto the Interstate and erupted into a large fire. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

On February 19, 2015, a car was traveling eastbound on Arkansas 22 when it crossed the center lane and crashed into a semi truck, which was going westbound. The car was totaled, and the truck burst into flames. The truck driver was uninjured, but the driver of the car was taken to the hospital in critical condition.

Just a couple months later, on March 13, 2015, eastbound lanes of the Ohio Turnpike in Portage County were closed because of another semi truck fire. In this case, the driver drifted off the right side of the roadway for unknown reasons. He struck the guardrail, overturned, and the truck caught fire. The driver was pronounced dead at the scene.

Is It Time to Re-evaluate the Safety of Semi Fuel Tanks?

According to statistics released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2012, nearly 4,000 people were killed and 104,000 injured in crashes involving large trucks. That was a four percent increase over 2011. Truck fuel fires aren’t necessarily common, but they do cause about 10 percent of fatalities each year.

Victims who are injured in these sorts of accidents are often eligible to file personal injury lawsuits to recover damages. Typical defendants include the truck driver, the company he or she was working for at the time of the accident, and potentially other drivers that may have been involved, if it is a multi-vehicle crash.

Heavy truck design engineer Erin Shipp notes that it’s time we take a second look at how truck fuel tanks are designed. Car and pickup trucks have undergone their share of scrutiny over the past decade, particularly as Ford and GM recalls have forced the issue. Meanwhile, truck fuel tanks “look and function about the same now as they did 50 years ago,” according to Shipp.

Recommendations for Design Improvement Ignored

The industry has been slow to implement any improvements in fuel tank design because such changes would cost money, and are deemed “unnecessary.” On the whole, diesel fuel is not as flammable as regular gasoline. It’s heavier, denser, and less volatile, and has to be compressed to a very high pressure and temperature to detonate.

The problem is that when it does ignite, the resulting explosion can be catastrophic. Most semis can carry about 100 gallons of fuel, which is vulnerable to exploding during a collision or rollover. The gas tanks are placed outside the truck frame below the driver and passenger doors, and are unprotected in a collision. The tanks themselves have a thin membrane that can be punctured, and when fuel leaks out, it’s vulnerable to sparks that may ignite it.

In 2012, a study by the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center (KIPRC) found that compared to other vehicles, semi trucks are more likely to catch fire in higher speed vehicle crashes. Researchers analyzed data from motor vehicle collisions that occurred between 2000 and 2009, and found that the Kentucky large truck fire rate was 113% higher than that of light trucks or passenger cars. They noted that the trucks were particularly vulnerable to explosion because of the crossover lines between the two side fuel tanks, which can tear, rupture, or puncture and increase risk of fire in an accident.

A study published by the U.S. Department of Transportation back in 1989 made recommendations for truck fuel tank design improvements. “[A]lthough fires involving trucks are rare,” state authors Mowrer, Milke, and Clarke, “they are unusually lethal events, especially for heavy truck occupants.” They note that while not all fires can be blamed on vulnerable fuel systems, “the results of this study suggest that improvements might be possible that could reduce even further the likelihood of fires that are the result of truck crashes.”

Some of those suggested improvements included:

• Reduce susceptibility of tank mounts to failure by impact from highway structures and other vehicles.
• Protect the tank from nearby components that may strike or rupture it.
• Increase puncture resistance of the fuel tank.

Manufacturers Need to Improve Fuel Tank Safety

As evidenced by the first three accidents noted in this article, examples of semi truck fires are not hard to find, and are often deadly. Safer designs, such as that proposed by researchers and engineers, exist, and it’s time truck manufacturers upgraded their products to fit today’s safety standards.