Semi Truck Fuel Tank Fire Accidents

When a semi truck fuel tank catches fire, the results can be disastrous.

On March 13, 2015, a truck driver drifted off the eastbound lane of the Ohio Turnpike in Portage County and struck the guardrail. The semi overturned, and the truck caught fire. Traffic was blocked for several hours. The driver was pronounced dead at the scene.

In this case, only the driver was injured, but in other cases, the fire can spread and affect other vehicles and their occupants. The Pittsburgh truck accident lawyers at Chaffin Luhana represent individuals who are injured in these types of accidents throughout the Ohio Valley in West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio and nationwide.

Large Truck Fuel Tanks Vulnerable to Fire

On the whole, diesel fuel is less flammable than regular gasoline. That has led large truck manufacturers to believe that they don’t need to improve the safety of the fuel tanks, but recent research has pointed out the flaw in that thinking.

A 2012 study by the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center (KIPRC), for example, found that when compared to other vehicles, semi trucks are more likely to catch fire in higher speed vehicle crashes. Data from motor vehicle collisions that occurred between 2000 and 2009 revealed that the Kentucky large truck fire rate was 113 percent higher than that of light trucks or passenger cars.

Most semis can carry about 100 gallons of fuel in gas tanks that are placed outside the truck frame, 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. Researchers involved in the Kentucky study also noted that trucks are particularly vulnerable to explosion because the crossover lines between the two side fuel tanks can tear, rupture, or puncture and increase risk of fire in an accident.

Other potential causes of a semi-truck fire may include:

• Defective fuel tank (caused by design, lack of maintenance or placement of the tank)
• Fuel tank punctures, which allow fuel to spill out
• Defective fuel line
• Problems with the electrical system

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.

The U.S. Department of Transportation published a study in 1989 on heavy truck fuel system fire safety. After reviewing the data, they made recommendations for fuel tank design improvements, which included protecting the tanks from nearby components that could rupture them, increasing puncture resistance of the tanks, and building in features that could reduce fuel spillage. These improvements could be easily solved with today’s technology, but they have yet to be made.

“[A]lthough fires involving trucks are rare,” state authors Mowrer, Milke, and Clarke, “they are unusually lethal events, especially for heavy truck occupants.” They added, “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.”

Cars Have Upgraded—What About Trucks?

Ford, Chrysler, Honda Acura, and GM have all implemented vehicle recalls for fuel tanks that were defectively designed. These fuel tanks were prone to corrosion, easily punctured because of faulty placement on the vehicle, and vulnerable to leakage. The resulting accidents and injuries drew attention to these defective designs, and manufacturers slowly responded with improvements.
We need similar changes to occur in semi truck fuel tank designs. Heavy truck design engineer Erin Shipp of Robson Forensics states that today’s tanks “look and function about the same now as they did 50 years ago.” The industry has been slow to implement any improvements, however, because such changes would cost money, and are deemed “unnecessary.”

Manufacturers Need to Improve Fuel Tank Safety

Meanwhile, truck drivers, occupants in other vehicles, and even pedestrians continue to be at risk for serious injuries and death from a semi-truck fuel tank fire. If you or a loved one was injured in this type of accident, you may be eligible to recover damages through a personal injury lawsuit.

It’s time truck manufacturers are held responsible for their failure to keep up with today’s safety standards. At Chaffin Luhana, we can help. We have the experience needed to thoroughly investigate your case and find out where the negligence occurred. Call us for a free consultation today.