Time to stop cargo tank rollovers

June 1, 2005
A HALF dozen tank transport rollovers in one weekend. That may be a record, especially since they all occurred during the recent Memorial Day weekend.

A HALF dozen tank transport rollovers in one weekend. That may be a record, especially since they all occurred during the recent Memorial Day weekend.

Even if it wasn't a record, it's almost certain to bring a lot more scrutiny from the bureaucrats and politicians in Washington DC. Government action may be coming sooner, rather than later. And maybe government should step in if the tank truck industry can't take the actions necessary to address the rollover issue.

Rollovers may be the most preventable of tank truck accidents. Without question, they are perhaps the most costly and tragic of accidents for tank truck fleets. According to Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics, rollovers are involved in six out of 10 truck driver fatalities.

The statistics are alarming enough that rollovers are climbing to the top of the list of issues being studied at DOT and its agencies. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has been gathering statistics for several years, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has given indications that it may broaden a study on cargo tank rollover protection.

While speaking at the National Tank Truck Carriers annual meeting in early May, FMCSA Administrator Annette Sandberg said that cargo tank rollover is a critical concern and high priority for the agency. Statistics collected by the agency show that rollovers occur in 23% of cargo tank crashes. Even more alarming, the rate climbs to 75% when the cargo tank vehicle is negotiating a turn. In comparison, just 3% to 4% of all commercial motor vehicles roll over in an accident.

Turning to PHMSA, we have to believe that looking at tank truck rollovers would be a much better use of agency resources than the current questionable rulemaking efforts to eliminate wetlines on petroleum trailers. PHMSA has yet to make a solid case for the costly and potentially dangerous process of modifying retained-product piping. Wetlines pose a minimal risk of death and injury compared to rollovers.

If government does step into the cargo tank rollover issue, it's almost certain to suggest technology as a key part of the fix. This could range from requiring a lower center of gravity in cargo tank vehicles to mandating computerized vehicle stability systems.

Technology can be a part of the solution. No question about it. The computerized stability systems now available from several suppliers of commercial braking systems are very good products that deserve consideration. However, they don't eliminate the key cause of cargo tank rollover — driver mistakes.

Operator error is the chief culprit in virtually every rollover accident. In a list of the top five factors in cargo tank rollovers, driver awareness/alertness is number one. Next in order are vehicle speed, road conditions, load conditions (full or partially full tank), and weather.

The key to preventing cargo tank rollovers is changing driver habits. This is something the industry can do without a federal mandate, and it's something that must be done.

NTTC recently teamed up with J J Keller & Associates Inc to produce an educational program that includes a monthly poster, monthly fact sheet and driver test, and monthly payroll stuffers. All three components follow a common monthly theme that focuses on rollover awareness.

One of the most important aspects of the NTTC/J J Keller Rollover Prevention Program is the way it involves family members — the people who usually have the most influence over a driver. Hopefully, the program will be embraced by the entire tank truck industry.

It's time to end cargo tank rollover accidents.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.