Trucking accident cases often focus on vehicle maintenance, the driver’s hours of service and crash reconstruction. However, there are occasions where a product design defect is a key cause or contributing factor to the cause of a trucking crash injury or death. Truck fuel tank design presents such safety concerns given that the current design standard is inherently susceptible to explosion.
We have all seen the gleaming aluminum tanks mounted along each side of the tractor, out where they “dress up” the truck. They might look nice, but such an exposed position is not where 100 gallons or more of volatile diesel fuel should be stored. In any truck accident, this open location risks exposing the truck fuel tanks to high-density explosions.
Truck Fuel Tanks Explode
In the United States, there are 80 to 100 burn deaths every year for occupants of heavy trucks or other vehicles involved in crashes with semi tractor trailers. Most of these deaths are caused by a truck’s fuel tank either exploding on impact or leaking fuel. In both situations, the result is an intense explosion of heat and flame.
Important Truck Fuel Tank Study
In 1989, the United States Department of Transportation published a Heavy Truck Fuel System Safety Study. That study published detailed recommendations along with a Failure Modes Effect Analysis (FEMA) and a fault tree analysis that is suitable as a basis for any manufacturer to design a safer product.
- Some of the recommendations from that study include the following:
- Reducing the susceptibility of tank mounts to failure by impact from highway structures or other vehicles
- Increasing the distance to be traverses by displaced components before they reach fuel tanks, providing protective barriers between fuel trans and nearby components, to increase the puncture resistance of the fuel tank.
Of particular note, the Department of Transportation study also maintained that the objective of fuel tank design and fuel tank systems should be to reduce the likelihood of impact or puncture under typical crash conditions.
A Safety Response
As a truck accident lawyer, I am disappointed that while smaller vehicles — our personal cars — have seen effective safety improvements to their fuel system design, no such work has been implemented in the trucking industry.
Erin Shipp of Robson Forensics, an expert of automotive structures and a heavy truck design engineer, has since designed a technically feasible system that would maintain truck fuel tank integrity under most impact conditions.
As Ms. Shipp notes in her article Do We Need Safer Trucks?, her design offered significant safety improve to the truck fuel tank system:
The design I developed has now been filed as a provisional patent no.
61/750418 titled “Truck Fuel Tank System for Improved Crashworthiness.” This solution provides at least one technically feasible design that would reasonably achieve the goals established in the 1989 DOT report and the results shown in the crashworthiness of automotive fuel systems.
This model demonstrates the basic concept of relocating the fuel tanks inboard so that they are less exposed, and are shielded from potential damage due to collision or ground contact. This allows adequate space for all accessories and systems as well as provisions for energy absorbing materials surrounding the fuel tanks to further reduce intrusion and prevent fuel tank rupture.
By sharing information about Shipp’s design, and by demanding that truck manufacturers work harder to improve safety, perhaps we can make a change in an industry that “has always done it that way”. If we’re successful there, we’ll be successful in making our roads that much safer too.