How To Avoid Tank-Truck Rollovers

How To Avoid Tank-Truck Rollovers
Driving too fast for conditions and over-steering during an accident are two major causes of tank-truck rollovers. However, rollovers can be prevented by properly training drivers and reinforcing the need for safety.

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Earlier this year, a septic truck driver in Virginia jerked his steering wheel hard to the right to avoid an accident and turned over the vehicle. In Ohio, a septic truck rolled over on a highway as the driver tried to evade an oncoming tractor-trailer rig that was rounding a curve too wide. And in California, a septic truck exiting a freeway off-ramp rolled over and crashed into a sub-sandwich shop/gas station. 

Here’s the good news: In all three cases, no serious injuries resulted. Now the bad news: Rollover accidents ­– for both straight-tank trucks and trailer tankers – continue to vex the industry, says John Conley, past president of the National Tank Truck Carriers (NTTC) organization and a 40-year observer of the trucking industry. 

“Stopping cargo-tank rollovers remains one of our most unique challenges,” Conley says. “I can’t say there’s been an increase in rollovers but they continue to occur and our goal is to eliminate them. They continue to persist despite our best efforts to combat them.” 

Cataloging the chaos 

An Internet search reveals that there’s no concise national database that monitors just tank-truck rollover accidents. A 2007 study published by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, however, estimated at the time that 1,250 cargo-tank rollovers occur annually in the United States, with 15 to 20 percent occurring on freeways. Moreover, the study concludes that driver error accounts for about 75 percent of cargo tank-truck rollovers. The most frequent cause? Driver error during an evasive maneuver. 

Even though hard statistics are lacking, Conley notes that rollovers are rare – about five every day out of some 100,000 tank trucks on the road. “Anecdotally, it is safe to say that we (tank truckers) have the best safety record in the trucking industry, and that includes septic pumping companies,” he says. But he also points out that if the same ratio was applied to airplanes, it would be unacceptable, and the same standard should be applied to tank truckers. 

The problem is particularly vexing because almost every rollover – most of which are single-vehicle accidents – is preventable, he adds. 

Slow and steady 

“The biggest common denominator in tank-truck rollovers is drivers that go too fast for road or weather conditions – and that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re speeding,” Conley says. “Even if a posted speed is say, 35 mph, drivers should cut that in half. Managing speed is the key.” 

The other most common error is over-steering during an incident. For example, if a truck goes off the road and onto the shoulder, a common reaction is to jerk the steering wheel too hard to the left to get back on the road, which leads to rollovers. 

Rollovers are serious because they can injure or even kill employees and other drivers; severely damage, if not destroy, company vehicles; and threaten a company’s financial condition by driving up insurance rates. So what can the owners of septic pumping businesses do to minimize the odds of rollovers? They can start by realizing one thing: While they may consider themselves waste disposal and transportation companies, they in essence are trucking companies, Conley says. 

Once an owner gets into that mindset, it follows that as a trucking company, it’s critical to thoroughly train all truck drivers. That means every driver who obtains a commercial driver’s license must also obtain a tank-truck driving endorsement, which requires a driver to pass an additional knowledge test, not another driving test, he notes. 

Safety first 

Septic pumpers should also hold regular driver safety meetings to impress on drivers that the company is extremely serious about safe driving. They also can join a state trucking association, which can provide safety and training information. 

“You need to tell a new driver why a tank truck is different from anything they’re ever driven before,” Conley says, noting that tank trucks have high centers of gravity, and that liquid waste sloshing around inside can lead to rollovers. In fact, more than 94 percent of rollovers occur in tank trucks carrying partial loads, which are more susceptible to liquid “slosh” and “surge,” according to a safety video developed by the NTTC and the United States Department of Transportation. 

Moreover, companies can invest in stability control equipment, which can be ordered as an option on a new vehicle or added retroactively to an existing vehicle. The systems are designed to minimize the chances of a rollover. “There’s no silver bullet to completely stop rollovers, but vehicle stability control can take control of a vehicle and slow it down,” Conley says. 

Expert advice 

Another strategy could involve having experienced drivers point out to fellow drivers portions of routes that are more prone to rollovers. “Solutions don’t have to be very complicated or exotic,” he says. “We’re not talking about rocket science; just have veteran drivers point out spots where their antennae go up.” 

For more detailed information about tank-truck driving safety, Conley highly recommends that companies show their drivers the U.S. DOT/NTTC tank-truck safety video (to view or download it, visit www.fmcsa.dot.gov/about/outreach/cargo-tank-video.aspx). 

“Tank-truck drivers make thousands of deliveries every day without any rollovers, but it’s the four or five that occur every day that get all the attention,” he concludes. “We need to get better.”



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