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Post-Collision Fires in Trucking Cases

Truck crashworthiness litigation, including post-collision fuel-fed fires, doesn’t receive nearly the attention the issue deserves. Heavy truck operators are entitled to the same safety benefits that passenger car manufacturers are required to extend to their customers. In the past, much attention has been focused on the location of fuel tanks in passenger cars. At times auto manufacturers have placed fuel tanks outside the frame rails, as in the case of the side-saddle gas tanks of the GM pickup trucks. At other times fuel tanks have been placed too far rearward in passenger cars, as in the example of the Ford Pinto. As with cars, failure to properly design a fuel systems in heavy trucks for the inevitability of wrecks places passengers and operators at severe risk of injury or death from a fire or explosion.

When it comes to large trucks, the fuel tanks needed are often extremely large and manufacturers argue that it is not feasible to place the tanks within the vehicle frame rails. As a result, nearly every heavy truck has large fuel tanks strapped to the side of the vehicle, where they are vulnerable to impacts by passenger cars, trucks and other heavy trucks. This condition makes fuel spillage in heavy truck wrecks not only likely, but probable. Since heavy truck manufacturers are resistant to moving fuel tanks from their exposed location, an alternative is to reduce the likely sources of ignition in the event of a collision.
In most cases, heavy truck manufacturers place the battery box within inches of the fuel tank or have battery cables running over or on the fuel tanks. At crash time, this close proximity of the battery to the fuel tank increases the likelihood that when a fuel spill occurs, there will also be an ignition source in the battery compartment. The major three elements needed to create a fire are air, fuel and an ignition source in the battery compartment. Clearly, if you remove one of these elements, the likelihood of a post-collision fuel-fed fire is substantially reduced.

An alternative design to help reduce the likelihood of a post-collision fuel-fed fire in a heavy truck is to move the battery box between the frame rails along with all associated cables attached to the battery box. This relocation will substantially reduce the opportunity for damage to occur to the battery box or its associated cables, thereby reducing a known ignition source that has been the cause of many post-collision fuel-fed fires.

The design alternative and safety principle supporting the positioning of battery boxes inside the frame rails are well known; however, they are rarely implemented by heavy truck manufacturers. For example, Freightliner Corporation included this alternative design in trucks at least as early as 1996. But, if heavy truck manufacturers had conducted a proper risk/hazard analysis, this alternative design concept could have been employed much earlier. While relocation of the battery boxes in a heavy truck does not resolve the larger issue related to the size and placement of the external fuel tanks, it does provide a serious opportunity to reduce the likelihood that fuel spillage will be ignited by damage done to the battery boxes.

If you would like more information about trucking collisions or trucking safety issues, contact George A. LaMarca.

George A. LaMarca is an active member of the Association of Interstate Trucking Lawyers of America. The AITLA is a national association of committed trial lawyers who have joined together to help eliminate unsafe and illegal interstate trucking practices. Through the combined efforts of its member attorneys, this organization supports education, litigation and legislation to make America’s highways a safer place tomorrow for our families, our clients and all Americans. The mission of AITLA is to dramatically reduce the number of traffic accidents, injuries and deaths across America that are caused by trucking companies who are unsafe. Its members are committed to the organization’s motto of “Putting the Brakes on Unsafe Trucking Companies.” AITLA attorneys have attained extremely high levels of professional and national achievement and recognition in the area of law known as interstate trucking litigation. Membership in this prestigious organization is open only to ethical plaintiff’s lawyers who pledge to join together with other member attorneys to accomplish the stated mission of this organization.

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