Tragic Crash Highlights Vehicle Fire Dangers
Brett EmisonJune 05, 2010 10:30 AM
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A tragic crash that occurred Mattoon, Illinois earlier this week highlights not only the dangers of distracted driving, but also the dangers of fuel fed vehicle fires.
It goes without saying that drivers and passengers should not survive a collision only to burn to death inside the vehicle. However, the US Fire Administration has said that post-collision fires are the leading cause of vehicle-related deaths.
Several news outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, KMOX and the Galesburg Register-Mail, have reported that three people were killed when a distracted tractor trailer driver rear-ended their SUV, which burst into flames.
A Louisiana truck driver triggered a fatal nine-vehicle accident when he looked down at a map as he approached slowing traffic on an eastern Illinois highway, police said.
Three people were killed and 13 were hospitalized Monday evening when the truck driver crashed into the back of a vehicle near a construction zone, setting off a chain reaction that eventually included nine vehicles on Interstate 57 north of Mattoon, police Capt. Stuart Shaver said.
The people who died were in a sport utility vehicle that caught fire, he said. Their names haven't been released.
Thirteen people were taken to two area hospitals, but information about their conditions wasn't available Tuesday.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families, friends and loved ones of those killed and injured in this crash. Their pain and burden is made that much greater knowing that this tragedy could have been avoided.
Auto industry insiders -- and even some consumers -- are familiar with tank location defects, such as the "side-saddle" fuel tank defect in which the fuel tanks were located in an unprotected area on the side of a pickup truck outside of the frame rails and "Pinto"-type defects where the fuel tank is located in an unprotected location between the rear axle and rear bumper. While these defects still exist, today the more common fuel system defects concern fuel siphoning (gas leakage after a fuel line has been cut or broken), failure to incorporate anti-leak check valves and fuel filler neck defects.
Manufacturers concede that a vehicle occupant should not survive a collision only to burn to death in a fire caused by a fuel leak. In other words, if the crash itself does not kill the occupant, neither should the fuel system.
General Motors (GM) engineers agreed and advised the company's management more than 35 years ago that fuel leaks should not occur in crashes that would otherwise be survivable. GM, as well as other manufacturers, failed to adopt this directive from their engineers and instead chose to comply only with the minimum standards imposed by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 301.
Around the same time, GM prepared a "value analysis" that examined the cost of fire-related fatalities to GM. The analysis, prepared by GM advance-design engineer Edward Ivey, has become known as the "Ivey Memo." Ivey concluded that GM could save $2.20 per new car if it could prevent fuel-fed fires in all crashes.
The "Ivey Memo" was introduced as evidence for the first time in any case in Baker v. General Motors. GM tried keep Ronald Elwell, a GM engineer for more than 30 years, from testifying regarding the Ivey Memo value analysis. After fighting GM clear to the United States Supreme Court, a 9-0 decision confirmed that GM could not buy its engineer's silence. Elwell testified:
"Value analysis says all we have got is $2.20 to play with, if you will. We can either put that money in a fuel tank, put that money in a fuel pump, put that money in a fuel line, but in our opinion, in order to save these people from dying, we can only put $2.20 into the new cars."
The Ivey Memo told GM management that after only $2.20 per car, it became more profitable to let its customers die than to fix the problem. The Ivey Memo showed that GM put profits over safety and ignored the safety advice of its own engineers.
The Siphoning Defect
Siphoning is simply the flow of a liquid -- gasoline -- caused by pressure between the source of the liquid (the fuel tank) and a discharge point, such as a cut or break in a fuel line. Siphoning can result from either gravity or pressure in the fuel system. Once the siphoning has started, an ignition source as small as a spark will totally engulf the vehicle in flames.
While the scientific principles of siphoning may be somewhat technical, the concept is relatively simple. Most jurors will understand that gas will siphon from fuel tanks. Second, vehicle manufacturers have known how to repair the defect for many years. Finally, the cost of the safety device to prevent siphoning is minimal.
The automotive industry has known for many years that siphoning can contribute to post-collision fires. GM documents dating back to the early 1970s establish that the company knew about the danger and evaluated the cost of incorporating a shutoff valve inside the tank.
GM engineers discussed several "solutions" to prevent siphoning after it was discovered that a car siphoned fuel from its tank in a 50-mph crash test into a pole. These included shutoff valves inside the tank; check valves at the tank; various shutoff connectors; and a vent hole in the fuel line at the tank.
Ford documents from the same period also discuss the hazard and various check or shutoff valves that would solve the problem.
If a vehicle caught fire, but the fuel tank was intact, a thorough investigation must be performed to determine if fuel could have siphoned from the gas tank. Siphoning is an all too common occurrence if no safety features are incorporated into the system.
The Filler Neck Defect
Since every vehicle must be fueled and refueled, every fuel system is designed with a significant hole -- the fuel filler pipe. Auto makers have known since the 1960s that check valves or other safety devices should be incorporated into the filler necks of fuel tanks to prevent the escape of gas during a collision. However, with only a few exceptions, automakers have failed to equip vehicles with these valves, and this defect has led to unnecessary injury and death in collisions.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Highway Safety Bureau (NHSB)—the predecessor to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—issued a report in 1967 concerning performance standards for fuel-tank protection. The agencies found that it was common for fuel to spill from the fuel-filler pipe in a rollover or other type of crash and concluded that check valves located in the pipe would eliminate spillage:
Information received from accident data reports indicate[s] that the rollover type of accident accounts for the highest incidence of fatal burn injuries. In a rollover accident, fuel is often spilled from a virtually intact system. Separation of the filler pipe from the body shell or from the tank opens a large exit for the fuel. Also, the vent pipe of the tank can spill during and following an overturning accident."
Check valves located at the filler-pipe and vent-pipe openings of a fuel tank would eliminate spillage during rollover or upset. These check valves might be gravity operated, spring loaded, or operated by vacuum from the engine.
In 1970, General Motors identified the solution to the problem in a memorandum that discussed a proposed modification to FMVSS 301, the fuel-system-integrity standard:
"The rollover problem is two-fold. [N]ot only must the system not leak as designed, but it must survive severe front and rear impacts. Due to the usual poor repeatability of crash tests, it may be necessary to put emergency no-flow devices in each line emerging from the tank."
The concept of a check valve for the fuel-filler pipe is nearly as old as automobiles themselves. Patents dating back to the 1930s refer to these devices. The early patents discuss "flapper valves," which were originally designed to prevent intentional siphoning of gas from the tank. These valves were later designed to stop the flow of gasoline out of the fuel tank in a collision.
Auto makers need to do more to ensure that drivers and passengers are burned to death after a survivable crash. Your life and your family's lives are worth more than $2.20, don't you think?
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