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Gasoline Tankers Seen as ‘Rolling Bombs’ of the Road : Transportation: Imperfect, top-heavy design and thin tanks contribute to the potential for disaster.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a peaceful morning in February, 1991, a fiery gasoline-tanker crash jolted this Sacramento suburb like a terrorist car bomb.

Residents awakened about 3:15 a.m. to a thunderous blast after a fully loaded tanker truck rolled over, skidded 110 feet on its side and landed on a parked car in a field at the edge of a tranquil residential neighborhood.

Incredibly, no one died. But property damage spread for blocks, including two homes that burned to the ground. “It was like a war zone,” said Mike Griffin, one of the first police officers to arrive.

The accident lent graphic testimony to a simple truth about the omnipresent gasoline tanker: It is easily the most destructive and deadly of all vehicles that carry hazardous materials on the nation’s highways.

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A computer analysis by The Times, using accident reports from the U.S. Department of Transportation, shows that in the past 10 years well over half the deaths and almost half the property damage from major hazardous-material accidents on the nation’s highways were caused by gasoline tankers.

With good reason, gasoline trucks are sometimes called “rolling bombs.” A loaded truck generally carries fuel with a maximum potential charge equivalent to about 100 tons of TNT--enough to level several city blocks.

Although the federal government has moved to increase tanker safety in recent years, The Times found that these trucks remain a serious potential menace:

* They are imperfectly designed. Their tanks are built high off the ground to limit the risk of damage to the pipes underneath. But that makes the trucks top-heavy. With a high center of gravity and a narrow wheelbase, scores of tankers roll over in serious accidents every year.

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* Driver error is a major problem, accounting for up to two-thirds of all tanker accidents. Tankers traveling too fast around a curve are disasters waiting to happen.

* Tankers are especially vulnerable to the unexpected. The few seconds following a blown tire or brake failure can turn into life-and-death dramas. Thin aluminum tanks are readily punctured in accidents. A tanker pulling a trailer can be hard to control in an emergency.

With few restrictions on its transport, gasoline accounts for about half the nation’s hazardous-materials shipments. Though the vast majority of gasoline tankers deliver their product safely, the fraction that does not poses a significant threat.

“There is no question that these trucks roll over with greater frequency (than other vehicles) and when they do, horrible things can happen,” said David R. Pesuit, a veteran highway accident investigator in Northampton, Mass., who is the author of a major report on tanker safety.

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Like politics, all gasoline is local: Though it usually travels from the refinery by pipeline, it is delivered to the retail pump by trucks making as many as 50,000 deliveries a day.

“It goes through every community and every neighborhood in this country,” said Bob Chipkevich, chief of the hazardous-materials section of the National Transportation Safety Board. On Friday, a large gasoline truck crashed and burned on the Hollywood Freeway, snarling morning traffic for hours. In April, tanker accidents shut down the Long Beach Freeway twice in 72 hours.

From 1982 to 1991, gasoline truck accidents killed 52 people, injured 79 and forced the evacuation of 1,648 people, according to U.S. Department of Transportation accident reports. The true toll is far higher, safety experts say, because major gaps exist in the government’s information.

Simple as it sounds, the best advice for drivers may be to stay as clear of petroleum tankers as possible. “People don’t understand the dangers of these time bombs running through the streets,” said attorney Roger A. Dreyer, who is representing homeowners in the Carmichael accident.

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One image of petroleum tankers was shaped by the 1971 film “Duel,” directed by Steven Spielberg. The movie’s demonic focus was a filthy, pollution-belching tanker that terrorized a traveling salesman played by Dennis Weaver on rural mountain roads in California.

In the real world, though, the line between right and wrong--or more precisely between the colliding demands of economics and public safety--is not so neatly drawn.

Defenders argue that gasoline tankers are much safer than they used to be and have excellent safety records--if they are driven carefully and well-maintained. Some accidents are simply unavoidable in a petroleum-addicted nation that consumes more than 300 million gallons of gasoline a day, the trucking industry contends.

New York City, for instance, has among the toughest tanker-truck safety laws in the nation. But the deadliest gasoline tanker crash of the 1990s occurred in the Bronx last year. A tanker collided with a car, killing five people. A traffic light that displayed green in both directions led to the accident, fire officials said.

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The Times study found a steady increase in hazardous-materials incidents on the nation’s highways during the past 10 years, with the annual tally of spills climbing 34% from 1982 to 1991.

Still, given the volume of liquids hauled, some front-line law enforcement officials argue the roads are getting safer, as trucking companies pay increased attention to equipment maintenance and driver training.

A new nationwide commercial driver’s license requires special tests for those who haul hazardous materials. Other federal rules, which take effect next year, aim to improve tank manufacture and maintenance. The goal is to avoid spills when a serious accident occurs.

Skeptics, though, say the new rules are confusing and question if they will make a difference.

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The National Transportation Safety Board recently said that more research is needed before meaningful crash standards could be set. The NTSB also said that federal inspectors lack the training and qualifications to determine if rollover protections meet federal standards.

These safety issues--and the debates surrounding them--have unfolded against the larger backdrop of trucking deregulation, which sparked price wars that bankrupted many trucking firms and forced some companies to cut corners on safety.

With thinner profit margins, many tanker-truck owners--particularly smaller firms--keep their equipment as long as possible because they cannot afford new trucks, a congressional study noted several years ago.

“A second-tier owner uses a tanker until it becomes uneconomical and then sells to yet another owner,” the study said. “This process continues despite the truck’s inevitable deterioration.”

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The current generation of tanker rules began to evolve in the 1970s, when the government studied how the tanks held up in accidents, both real and simulated. Investigators concluded that gasoline spilled from tankers either after their tanks had ruptured or through leaking covers on top of the tanks.

In 1985, the Department of Transportation proposed sweeping changes in the construction, inspection and maintenance of tankers carrying all kinds of hazardous materials, not just gasoline.

But critics such as Pesuit noted that the proposed changes ducked the complex problem of how to avoid rollovers. Calling tanker-truck regulation a “sorry state of affairs,” he concluded in a 1987 paper for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers:

“We wonder if the American public, American business, and the American insurance industry will be willing to wait another 20 years--and go through another few thousands rollovers--before the United States Department of Transportation does its job.”

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It was another study by the California Highway Patrol in the early 1980s that most dramatically demonstrated the instability of tanker trucks. After studying scores of accident records, the CHP concluded that tanker trucks in general--whatever their liquid loads--are more susceptible to rollovers than other trucks.

In the gasoline truck accidents studied, the tankers overturned 43% of the time, spilled their load in half the accidents and sparked a fire in 23%. Subsequent reports--including Pesuit’s--generally reinforced the CHP’s conclusions.

Officials at the DOT, however, argue that a tanker redesigned to resist rollovers--one built wider and lower to the ground--is not worth the effort and cost.

“You can spend millions of dollars to improve the prevention of rollovers and all that can be defeated by a driver going 5 m.p.h. too fast in a curve,” said Jim O’Steen, a hazardous-materials specialist at the DOT.

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But Lawrence A. Botkin, retired product engineer for Fruehauf Corp., a U.S. tank manufacturer, contends that proposed design changes would cost only $4,000 to $5,000 per truck. “It isn’t that much,” he said in a phone interview.

One knotty problem: Although such experimental petroleum tankers may be 40% to 50% less likely to roll over, they are also too heavy for American roads, where the federal weight maximum--imposed to limit highway wear and tear--is 80,000 pounds. (They may also be too wide for some secondary roads.)

Prototype tankers have been built by Fruehauf and Freightliner Corp., but they have not been seriously marketed because of the weight problems. Government officials have also been indifferent to the efforts, Botkin said.

Although the trucking industry generally wants weight limits increased, many consumer groups do not. “They’d have to change the law, and it would be quite a battle,” said George Viverette, director of highway transportation for the American Automobile Assn. in Washington. Congress has frozen the ceiling for several years as a compromise.

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To be sure, tanker design is not the only potential danger. Other problems include:

* The nature of liquid loads--which are the same regardless of whether a truck is hauling milk or gasoline. Any sudden slowing causes a major shift in weight, known as a “surge” or sloshing effect, and contributes to the vehicle’s instability.

* The aluminum tanks, which often rupture or puncture in serious accidents. Gasoline once was trucked in steel containers, but most were phased out decades ago; lighter aluminum trucks proved more economical because they can haul more gasoline within highway weight limits.

* The potentially unstable trailers hauled behind many gasoline trucks--a practice legalized nationwide in 1982 but common in many Western states for decades. Pushed hard by the trucking industry, double trailers were approved as part of the same federal legislation that increased truck weight limits to 80,000 pounds.

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A key attraction of these gasoline truck-trailer combinations is that they are easy to maneuver around pumps when the vehicles are unloading their fuel at gas stations. But critics say the trailers make the trucks harder to control in highway emergencies.

“Add the mix of trailers and gasoline and you have what amounts to a Molotov cocktail on wheels,” said Anthony Garrett, head of a lobbying group known as Citizens for Safe and Reliable Highways.

* Driver inexperience and incompetence play a large role in tanker accidents, safety experts say.

In one instance, a truck driver in Greensboro, N.C., pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter after a freight train plowed into his gasoline tanker in late 1987, killing two people on the train. Authorities said the driver intentionally crossed the track while the warning lights were flashing.

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When tankers and trains collide, the results almost always are grisly. Six people died in suburban New Orleans in 1980 when a train hit a tanker carrying 8,600 gallons of gasoline. All those killed were in a nearby tavern engulfed by fire.

Other accidents simply defy neat description.

Four years ago, a tanker-trailer plunged from an expressway bridge near Wilmington, Del., after hitting a loose tire bouncing down the highway. The tire rolled underneath the tanker, destabilized the gasoline truck and sent it over the side of the bridge.

The fiery crash killed the driver and damaged the underside of the heavily traveled bridge so badly that traffic was severely restricted for six months, said Delaware State Police Sgt. Donald S. Pyne. Police never found the tire owner.

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“The truck was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Pyne said. “The driver did nothing wrong.”

Accident records show that many tanker-truck mishaps are solo affairs, where drivers lose control of the vehicles while going too fast around sharp curves.

That danger was graphically played out Feb. 13, 1991, when a Calzona Tankways truck carrying Arco gasoline through Carmichael tipped over in the early morning, scarring this bedroom community on Sacramento’s outskirts.

Gasoline escaped from gaping holes in the tank into a drainage ditch, winding its way under a major highway and snaking through a middle-class neighborhood of giant palm trees and narrow streets.

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The gasoline did not ignite until 15 minutes after the accident, giving the driver time to escape. But when the gas finally caught fire, it blew up the tanker, turned the night sky orange and sent a river of flames through the drainage ditch behind the homes.

Manhole lids flipped 40 feet into the air when the gasoline seeped into an underground drainage system and exploded. The metal covers rained down as residents fled homes more than 1,000 yards from the accident.

“We just ran for our lives, but we really didn’t know where to go,” said one homeowner, Lisa Daum. ". . . It felt like we were being bombed.”

Disfiguring scars remain from the accident, which sparked a spate of lawsuits.

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Teacher Maureen Camperi and her engineer husband, Ciro, continue to suffer severe health problems from inhaling gasoline fumes before the fire ignited. Their home of 26 years was destroyed.

Calzona blamed the accident on the driver--and the CHP and National Transportation Safety Board agreed. Authorities said Jon David Parker was going at least 12 m.p.h. too fast around the curve.

Parker was the sole person responsible for the accident, the CHP concluded in a confidential accident report obtained by The Times.

Yet, the NTSB’s follow-up investigation also showed that Calzona hired Parker in spite of its stated policy to only employ drivers with at least two years tanker-truck experience. Parker was only eight months out of trucking school when the accident occurred.

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“Everybody is having trouble finding good drivers,” said Jim Mankowski, vice president in charge of safety for Calzona. “It’s an industrywide problem.”

Parker denied that he was speeding, suggesting instead that the shifting weight of the gasoline might have caused the rollover. As he was rounding the curve, “I felt the right side ‘mushing’ over. I tried to correct, but it . . . turned over,” he told police.

Parker, who could not be reached for comment, was fired from his job and ticketed for driving at an unsafe speed.

The district attorney’s office in Sacramento County filed a civil suit against Calzona alleging illegal discharge of a hazardous waste; a local judge ruled recently that the firm was liable. Calzona faces a maximum fine of $25,000.

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The accident is expected to cost Calzona and its insurance company an estimated $4.6 million, Mankowski said. He also noted that Calzona is now enforcing its two-year experience rule for drivers.

“It was a god-awful event,” Mankowski said. “It was catastrophic but it was amazing no one was killed.”

DISASTER IN CARMICHAEL

Of the myriad gasoline tanker accidents on the nation’s highways in the past 10 years, few were as dramatic--or costly--as the crash of a Calzona Tankways tanker near Sacramento early last year. The accident dramatically underscored the potential dangers of such vehicles, the deadliest carriers of hazardous materials on American roads. How it Happened: 1. Feb. 13, 1991, 3 a.m.: His tanker brimming with 8,800 gallons of unleaded gasoline, driver Jon David Parker was cruising down Fair Oaks Boulevard in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael, singing along with the radio as he entered a steep curve on the way to his next delivery a mile away. Traffic was light, the pavement was dry and the temperature was a crisp 46 degrees. 2. The curve had been the site of many accidents in previous years. parker was familiar with the road. But as he was well into the curve, he later told police, the tanker “leaned hard to the right and felt mushy.” While Parker struggled to control the vehicle, the tanker kept listing farther and farther--and then tiped over. Parker thought a tire had blown; police later concluded he was driving much too fast--at least 52 m.p.h. in a 40-m.p.h. zone. 3. The tanker skidded 37 yards on its right side before coming to a halt in a field just shy of a large apartment complex. The truck landed on top of a 1968 Thunderbird parked in the field. 4. Gasoline gushed from the damaged tank but did not immediately ignite, allowing Parker time to escape with only two gashes on his head. When the gas did catch fire, however, it shot flames 80 feet into the air, blew the roof off a nearby house and -- having drained into an underground ditch--sent manhole covers 40 feet into the air a quarter of a mile from the accident site. No one died, but property damage exceeded $4.5 million.

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Sources: National Transportation Safety Board, California Highway Patrol

Built for Safety

Reducing the likelihood of gasoline-tanker rollover by as much as 50% would require a relatively modest and inexpensive redesign, according to Fruehauf Corp., a tanker manufacturer. Compared to the common tanker, the prototype truck has: FEATURES

1-Six axles instead of five

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2-Center of gravity is 7 inches lower

3-Wheel base is 6 inches wider

4-More capacity--10,500 gallons compared with 9,200 in conventional tankers POTENTIAL DRAWBACKS

Much heavier--86,000 pounds fully loaded. Current federal limit--imposed to reduce highway wear and tear--is 80,000 pounds. Consumer groups strongly oppose increasing weight limits.

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Too wide for some secondary roads

Common Tanker: Wheelbase: 96 in. Center of gravity: 83.75 in. above roadway

Prototype Wheelbase: 102 in. Center of gravity: 76.5 in. above roadway

Common Tanker: Total Weight: 80,000 lbs. gross Total tank capacity: 9.200 gallons

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Prototype: Total Weight: 86,000 lbs. gross Total tank capacity: 10,500 gallons Source: Fruehauf Corp.

Death on the Roadways

Tanker trucks and trailers were responsible for 97% of the deaths in hazardous materials spills on the nation’s highways over the last decade. Highway hazardous Materials Incidents, 1982-1991

Damages People (millions Container Type Deaths Incidents Injuries Evacuated of dollars) Tanker trailer 90 10,000 613 3,387 $105.8 Tank truck 11 2,038 107 1,501 18.7 Metal drum 2 15,478 357 1,950 11.4 Non-metal drum 1 5,263 177 329 3 Bottle 0 8,778 239 147 1.7 Can 0 2,828 33 92 1.9 Jug 0 2,794 40 30 0.4 Misc. container 0 828 51 72 1

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SOURCE: Compiled from U.S. Department of Transportation Hazardous Materials Incidents Reporting System by Richard O’Reilly, Times director of computer analysis.


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