While the government and the heavy truck industry have made strides over the years in better protecting truck drivers/occupants of heavy trucks in certain crash scenarios - through the implementation of seat-belts, airbags, crash-avoidance technology, occupant cab structural integrity, and other measures - there remains a high risk of truck driver and truck occupant deaths due to explosion and fire when the truck’s side-mounted fuel tanks are ruptured in a crash and the large quantities of fuel are ignited.
What remains status quo in the heavy truck industry is the fact that the location of the fuel tanks on Class 8 Tractors is unchanged since heavy trucks began being designed and manufactured. Since at least the 1940’s, big-rig semi-trucks, tractor-trailer trucks a/k/a Class 8 Tractors/Trucks have been manufactured with side-mounted diesel fuel tanks located outboard of the truck’s frame rails and just below the driver/passenger cab. These fuel tanks on each side generally carry 120 to 150 gallons of diesel fuel each. The fuel tanks are mounted at a level similar to the height of the front bumper on most passenger cars and vehicles. Most tractor-trailer combination vehicles traveling on our roadways can weigh up to 80,000 pounds with a full cargo load. In even the most benign crash scenario where the occupants of a Class 8 Truck suffer no traumatic injuries in the crash itself, and the truck would otherwise suffer little property damage, the aluminum fuel tanks - which are usually no more than 1/10 inch thick - can easily rupture or explode and result in a post-collision fire that is propagated by the large amounts of diesel fuel in the side-mounted fuel tanks.
Sadly, evidence from lawsuits, governmental statistics and studies, and internal memoranda from the heavy truck industry safety groups and certain manufacturers themselves reveals that the heavy truck manufacturers have known about the dangers and hazards associated with explosions and fires and the resulting horrific deaths and maiming of truck occupants for decades due to fuel tank breaches. Yet there has been no meaningful change to the basic location or protection of the outboard mounted fuel tanks for what is now in excess of 70+ years.
You may wonder: how is that so? How could this happen? Why have changes not been made? Sadly, heavy-truck manufacturers stick together and they have created a multitude of “talking points” which they and their allies and their lawyers and their experts repeatedly espouse so that nothing is done and people continue to die and burn.
The manufacturers rely on these primary positions: a) “state of the art” – meaning an attempt to state that the location of the tanks was in compliance with the most recent stage in the development of the product across the trucking industry at the time of manufacture; b) “compliance with industry’s standards” – which means since everybody in the trucking industry is doing it then we must be right; c) “compliance with government regulations and rules” – meaning since the government is not forcing us to make a change then we are clearly complying with government laws, rules and regulations and therefore, there is no reason to make a change until we are forced by the government to do so; d) “no safer alternative location” - amazingly, the truck-manufacturing industry will say that by placing the tanks where they are currently placed, they are in the safest location possible because they claim it is impossible to relocate fuel tanks within the truck’s rigid frame structures; and e) “no safer alternative design” - incredibly, the truck manufacturers will say that simple, inexpensive technology that has been available for decades that could protect the tanks and minimize the risk of tanks being punctured in crashes or by road debris (i.e., steel tank guards or cages around existing tanks, tapered frame systems that widen the frame system of the truck in order to place the tanks inboard of the frame to afford protection of the tank by the frame structure, bumper-deflection structures designed to deflect other vehicles or debris away from the front steer tires/front axle and fuel tanks in frontal or offset frontal collisions, axle-restraints designed to prevent rearward displacement of steer tires/front axles into the fuel tanks in frontal and offset frontal collisions, and patented alternative truck fuel tank design systems) is not feasible or practical because it would add too much weight to the truck and would prevent the truck manufacturers from being able to sell their trucks. The reality is that heavy truck manufacturers refuse to adopt technology that has been readily available and considered by them and industry groups for decades, only to be summarily dismissed and disregarded because it is easier for them to make excuses and keep the status quo.
Part of the problem is that the trucking companies are “locked-in” to a cavalier mindset when it comes to safety concerning the location and lack of protection of outboard mounted fuel tanks. These corporate giants who design and manufacture heavy trucks – including the companies’ engineers – have convinced themselves that there is no solution to the problem regarding the deaths and fires (at least insofar as it relates to a change in the location or protection of the fuel tanks). So, these companies and their engineers, insurance representatives, and their lawyers have adopted a decades-old playbook full of internal memos, repeated testimony as experts and as corporate representatives in courts around the country, repeated ignorance of safer alternative designs during truck industry crashworthiness and fuel system integrity committee meetings, and echoed talking points before governmental agencies or legislative bodies – meaning, of course, that the input coming from the trucking industry is always the same and always will be the same.
Many years ago there were horrid tragedies involving the Ford Pinto automobile and school buses that were involved in explosions and fire. Adults and Children were killed – burned alive! The cars and the buses had fuel tanks mounted outboard of the vehicle’s frame rails. There was a public outcry that “something has to be done!” There were investigations, studies, analysis, assessments and evaluations, and within a relatively short time – a change was made for safer buses and safer automobiles. New regulations or industry standards prompted the relocation of fuel tanks on most passenger vehicles and school buses so that the fuel tanks were mounted within the vehicle’s frame rails. In the decades since those changes, it is estimated that thousands of lives of adults and children have likely been saved.
There is indeed a fix to the problem; move the fuel tanks to a location inside of the frame rails, or at the very least, protect the existing fuel tanks from being ruptured and feeding post-collision fires that kill truck drivers and their passengers. In the past, battery boxes on certain class 8 trucks were mounted outboard of the frame rails. Many truck manufacturers moved the battery boxes inside of the frame to better protect them in collision and to reduce the risk of fire. Fuel crossover lines between a heavy truck’s two fuel tanks were being severed and causing fires, so many truck manufacturers made design changes to relocate, eliminate, or to protect crossover lines in order to reduce the risk of truck fires.
Yet, as of today, the heavy truck industry refuses to relocate, protect, or re-design the fuel tanks that typically carry 200-300 gallons of volatile diesel fuel that is usually protected by no more than a thin wall of aluminum and which sits just under the truck driver’s seat and is usually within an arm’s length from the motoring public every time we pass a heavy truck or stop next to one at a stop-light.
As one design engineer who has a patented safer alternative fuel tank design for a Class-8 heavy truck has stated when discussing the current mindset of the heavy truck industry, “If you’ve always done what you always did, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
By John F. Romano and Todd Romano