A great deal of media attention was focused on fuel-fed vehicle fires after the recent refusal by Chrysler of the U.S. government’s request that the automaker recall 2.7 million Jeep SUVs. The carmaker’s refusal decision was soon changed, the result of the negative media coverage, and a recall took place. But this issue deserves further comment. The request to Chrysler was made because of known fire risks. The fuel tank on the Jeep SUVs is located behind the rear axle of these vehicles, which is a terrible design concept and can’t be justified.
This is the latest chapter in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s scrutiny of gas tank positioning, which has been ongoing since the late 1970s. According to NHTSA, fires caused by gasoline leaking from punctured gas tanks in rear-end crashes have killed 51 people. I suspect the fatalities may be greater since some deaths may go unreported or not associated with a fuel tank issue.
NHTSA has repeatedly investigated gas tank issues through the years. NHTSA noted in the Chrysler case that in 2002 and 2003, only the Jeeps and the Ford Crown Victoria/Mercury Grand Marquis and Ford Mustang had fuel tanks located behind the axle. In 2002, NHTSA spent 10 months investigating whether Ford Crown Victoria police cruisers should be recalled because of the danger of high-speed crashes. From the early 1980s until 2002, 18 officers were killed in 29 fires when Crown Victoria gas tanks ruptured and caught fire. This occurred often after the car was struck in the rear in a high-speed crash.
NHTSA determined the Crown Victoria police car exceeds federal standards for fuel system safety and found the rate of fires was no greater than with Chevrolet Caprice police cars. Perhaps it was unrelated, but NHTSA’s decision came days after Ford agreed to pay about $50 million for the installation of shields around the gas tanks on some 350,000 Crown Victoria police cars to reduce fire risk after a rear-end crash.
Ford also came under pressure from Congress to issue gas tank shields to all Crown Victoria sedans used as taxi cabs, following the burning death of a New York City cab driver in 2005. Ford also offered the kits to owners of Lincoln Town Car limousines and made the kits available for purchase by private owners of the Crown Vic, Lincoln Town Car and Mercury Grand Marquis for $105, plus labor costs.
Prior to the 1970s, fuel tanks in most cars and trucks were located behind the rear axle. As NHTSA noted in its letter to Chrysler, the issue came to public attention with Ford’s recall of 1.5 million Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat cars in 1978 after 38 rear crashes resulted in 27 deaths and 24 injuries. Chrysler had to know that its fuel-tank design for the SUVs created a safety hazard. In August 1978, Chrysler had said in an internal memo that it would place the gas tank of its new K-car forward of the axle, as it had done with the Omni and Horizon cars. The memo to Chrysler’s head of product development stated:
This location provides the protection of all the structure behind the rear wheels — as well as the rear wheels themselves — to protect the tank from being damaged in a collision.
Chrysler also moved its gas tanks from behind the rear axle with the 1987 Dodge Dakota truck and 1998 Dodge Durango SUV. NHTSA cited a 1993 study of fire-related deaths from 1977 to 1989 that concluded relocating gas tanks had a substantial effect on the reduction of fire deaths.
There have also been safety hazards created by other designs. In 1994, NHTSA ordered a recall of up to six million 1972-1987 General Motors pickups with side-saddle fuel tanks due to vulnerability in severe side crashes, a recall estimated to cost $1 billion at the time. The tanks were located under the cab and bed outside the frame rails. According to the Department of Transportation, the trucks may have caused 150 deaths. But in a settlement just days before a public hearing, NHTSA withdrew the recall request and in exchange GM agreed to pay $51.3 million for safety programs. The automaker ultimately settled a class-action lawsuit in 1996 for $5 billion, which consisted of $1,000 vouchers to 5 million owners.
The infamous Ford Pinto has probably been the best-known example of a poor design decision. The Pinto had a fuel tank mounted behind the rear axle. This position allowed for dangerous, and often explosive, consequences in rear impact accidents. The overall safest positioning of a gas tank is between the front and rear axles of the vehicle. But, unfortunately, manufacturers don’t always follow this guideline and many vehicles do not provide the proper structural protection for the tank. Collisions with these vehicles can lead to fuel-fed fires.
It should be noted that it’s not always the location of the fuel tanks that can cause fuel fed fires. Design defects related to fuel fed fires can involve several different vehicle systems. The design issues can relate to issues of fuel filler cap design, fuel line design, fuel tank design, and also include fuel pump design. Fuel systems should be designed to maintain their integrity during reasonably foreseeable accidents so that occupants do not lose their lives in otherwise survivable accidents. If the occupants can survive crash forces without serious injury, so should the fuel system. Engineers have known for decades how to protect fuel systems from leaking in most crashes. The following design criteria have been known by the automobile manufacturers for years:
• The gas tanks should be located away from the “crash zone,” and not placed behind the rear axle;
• the tanks should be situated over the car’s rear axle and within the vehicle’s protective frame;
• the tanks should be kept away from protruding objects that could puncture them;
• the tanks should have shields on them to protect them from such objects;
• tank filler necks should be configured and constructed so they won’t rupture or break away from the tank in a crash; and
• safety “check valves” should be installed that prevent gasoline from siphoning out of the fuel tanks after a crash.
Lawyers in our firm have handled numerous cases involving fuel-fed fires. If you would like more information relating to this matter contact Greg Allen, Cole Portis, Ben Baker or Dana Taunton, lawyers in our Personal Injury/Product Liability Section at 1-800-898-2034 or by email at Greg.Allen@beasleyallen.com, Cole.Portis@beasleyallen.com, Ben.Baker@beasleyallen.com or Dana.Taunton@beasleyallen.com.
Source: The Detroit News
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