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Fuel system design: the crashworthiness angle.

Although fires occur in only about 3 of every 1,000 auto collisions, each year thousands of people suffer disfiguring or fatal burn injuries in post-collision fires. Many of these deaths can be attributed to dangerous fuel systems, which are subject to compromise or failure when a collision occurs.

Even though mechanically and economically feasible safer fuel system designs have been available for over 30 years, changes have been slow due to efforts by some manufacturers to dilute proposed safety standards and forestall implementing others. As a result, tens of thousands of vehicles with dangerous fuel systems are on the highways today, and new vehicles are still being sold with designs criticized as unsafe by design experts and the auto industry itself.

This article discusses the evolution of the standard applicable to fuel systems, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 301, and the basic theories of liability involved in cases alleging defective fuel systems.

Long before FMVSS 301 was promulgated, numerous studies recommended ways to reduce the risk of post-collision fires. These included relocating fuel tanks to less vulnerable locations, installing metal fire walls between the passenger compartment and the fuel tank, improving the resistance and crash durability of fuel filler pipes and fuel lines, and eliminating hazardous environments around tanks.

Since the 1920s, engineers have recognized the importance of protecting fuel systems and have proposed designs that would eliminate post-collision fires caused by fuel leakage from tanks. The risk to life and limb in these fires was described in a 1937 patent for a leak-resistant fuel system:

It is well known that by far the

greatest damage incident to the

overturning of an automobile or

an automobile wreck, arises from

fire which is caused by gasoline

leaking from the inlet of the

gasoline tank and coming into

contact with the hot exhaust pipe,

or other heated portions of the

engine. . . . It is well known also

that in such an event, the

occupants of the vehicle are

frequently pinned beneath the car

and burned to death, or at least

severely burned, before they can

be rescued. . . . We believe that by

producing a leak proof tank, that a

great many lives will be saved and

that a great deal less property

damage will result from

automobile wrecks. . . .(1)

As early as 1957, another patent recommended that tanks be moved from the rear of the car below the luggage compartment to the front of the axle and between frame members for greater protection.(2) By the 1960s and continuing into the 1970s, analyses of real-world crashes, research, and crash tests revealed the hazards of fuel system designs and suggested ways to eliminate or significantly reduce the risk of injury or death from fires:

Regardless of location, the

requirement remains unchanged of

having a substantial metal fire wall

welded to the passenger

compartment separating it from

the fuel tank. Less than this

degree of security has resulted in

devastating fires in which the

occupants are burned from

gasoline-fed flames shooting

directly in the passenger

compartment. . . . Preliminary

studies suggest that an improved

location for the fuel tank would be

the area cradled by the rear

wheels, above the rear axle and

below the rear window. . . . Fuel

tanks should not be located

directly adjacent to the rear

bumper or behind the rear wheels

directly adjacent to the fender

sheet-metal as this location

exposes them to rupture at very

low speeds of impact.(3)

Fuel tanks must have the

structural rigidity to resist rupture

under impact conditions. A

possible means of obtaining this

property is to build in corrugated

metal folds, to allow the tank to

expand on impact. Fuel fillers

must be designed so as to remain

attached to the tank on impact.

Positive connections between

tanks and vents, and supply lines

are also required. . . . Heavy gauge

metal fire walls should separate

the fuel tank from the passenger

compartment . . . Fuel

tanks should not be located

directly adjacent to the rear

bumper guard, or mud guard

sheet metal, or behind the rear


The fatality rate in automotive

postcrash fires is over seven

times the fatality rate in accidents

where fire did not occur. . . . Massive

fuel spills result when

fuel tanks fail during an accident.

Ruptures produced by both actual

and simulated crashes attest to

this. A complete series of

controlled rear-end impact crash

tests showed that the fuel tanks

were deformed, punctured or split

during impact. . . . The filler neck is

another source of serious fuel

spillage. The filler neck can be

pulled from the fuel tank during

impact, although the fuel tank

itself is not badly damaged. . . . Fuel

lines may also be cracked or

broken during crash impact.

Failure of the tank to fuel pump

line could lead to spillage of the

entire fuel tank contents. . . .(5)

The Standard

FMVSS 301 was promulgated under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966.(6) The initial version of the standard was issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on February 2, 1967, and became effective in 1968.

The standard applied only to passenger cars in frontal crashes. Its purpose was to specify "requirements for the integrity and security of fuel tanks, fuel filler pipes, and fuel tank connections to minimize fire hazards as a result of a collision."(7)

The standard, which was intended to be a "minimum" standard for performance in passenger cars, provided for a 30 mph front-end longitudinal barrier collision test and required that fluid losses during impact not exceed one ounce.

Later, NHTSA considered expanding the standard's coverage to multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, buses, and motorcycles, and revising the requirements to include lateral and rear-end longitudinal collision tests, prevention of fuel spillage in rollovers, puncture-resistant fuel tanks, and protection of fuel lines and fittings.

In response, the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) submitted a proposal for passenger cars that would require lateral and rear-end longitudinal barrier collision tests at 15 and 20 mph. The proposal called the one-ounce requirement "an arbitrarily small amount" and called for more tests and discussions on that point. As to multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, buses, and motorcycles, the AMA recommended testing that would simulate impacts "under other than destructive vehicle test conditions, such as dropping a fuel tank from a specified height."(8)

The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) also responded. It requested rear-end testing at 15 mph and side-impact testing at 10 mph. JAMA also proposed that "any provision regarding rollover be excluded from the standard."(9)

On August 29, 1970, NHTSA proposed amending the standard to extend the front-end longitudinal barrier collision test to all self-propelled motor vehicles of 10,000 pounds or less. It also added a rear-end fixed-barrier collision test and a static rollover test for vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 6,000 pounds or less.

The rear-end impact test would apply to vehicles made after November 1, 1972, and the speed was increased to 30 mph for all vehicles manufactured after January 1, 1973. Even more significant, the proposed amendment would have required no fuel spillage with the tank carrying at least 90 percent of capacity.(10)

Once again, the industry responded. JAMA requested the fuel spillage requirement be changed to less than one ounce per minute, instead of no spillage at all, and the rear-end impact test be changed to 15 mph, calling the 30 mph standard "insurmountably severe." The association also asked for three years' lead time to comply with the standard.(11)

General Motors called the proposed amendment "unreasonable and impracticable," and suggested the 30 mph rearend impact test be changed to 25 mph, and the fuel-spillage requirement be changed to allow three ounces during impact and one ounce thereafter.(12)

On August 20, 1973, NHTSA published a final rule amending 301, which eliminated the no-spillage requirement and adopted the static rollover test for passenger cars, to become effective September 1, 1975, and for multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, and buses with GVWR of 10,000 pounds or less, to become effective September 1, 1976.(13) The agency also issued a proposed rule for a dynamic rollover test and a moving 30 mph rear-end impact test. NHTSA pointed out that a study of rural collisions indicated that fuel spillage occurred in 26 percent of all rear-end car-to-car impacts, compared with 3.5 percent of front-end impacts. NHTSA considered a rear crash test of "primary importance."

On March 21, 1974, despite opposition by manufacturers, NHTSA issued the final rules, essentially as proposed, including the 30 mph rear moving barrier requirement. But as a result of efforts to delay the standards, no rear-end impact test was required on any passenger vehicle until September 1, 1976--over three years after the proposed 30 mph test was originally intended to take effect and six years after it was proposed. FMVSS 301 was not applicable to school buses over 10,000 pounds until April 1, 1977, nor to multipurpose vehicles, light trucks, and light buses under 6,000 pounds until September 1, 1976.

The Effect

The requirements of standard 301 have remained essentially unchanged since the late 1970s. To comply with them, manufacturers made a number of modifications to existing designs. These included relocating and shielding fuel tanks; strengthening, relocating, and redesigning filler necks; recontouring and eliminating adjacent components to eliminate contact and puncture points; and revising and recontouring fuel lines, suspension components, axle assemblies, and structural members.(14)

On January 10, 1983, NHTSA announced publication of an evaluation report concerning the standard. This was done as part of a directive to federal agencies to review existing regulations.

Using police accident data from five states, the report concluded that FMVSS 301 had been effective in significantly reducing post-collision fire rates, fatalities, and injuries and that the total cost required to implement the standard was only $8.50 per vehicle. The report also concluded that although significantly lower crash fire rates had been found in post-standard vehicles, the rate may have been increasing slightly for newer vehicles.

Despite these conclusions, the number of fire-related fatalities increased from 1,300 in 1975 to more than 1,800 in 1988, and fires in fatal collisions of passenger cars increased from 20 per 1,000 crashes in 1975 to 28 per 1,000 crashes in 1988.

Because newer vehicles seemed to be experiencing an increasing fire rate and because the 1983 report did not study fires in light truck crashes, NHTSA reevaluated the standard in November 1990, using crash data from five states and the Fatal Accident Reporting System. The agency concluded:

FMVSS 301 has been effective in reducing

the incidence of fire in passenger car

crashes. No reduction in fire-related

fatalities was found; the force

levels encountered in fatal fire crashes

may generally exceed the levels set by

the standard. Burn injuries may have

been reduced, but the evidence is

insufficient for definitive conclusions.

For light trucks built after FMVSS

301 took effect, no reduction in fires

was found.

FMVSS 301 has added $9.70 (in

1988 dollars) to the lifetime cost of

owning and operating a passenger car.

Corresponding cost for light trucks

small school buses, and conventional

school buses are $30.00, $25.60, and

$234.00 respectively.(15)

On December 14, 1992, NHTSA announced it was considering upgrading FMVSS 301 and requested comments from the public. General Motors responded, supporting the AMA's response that no changes to the standard were necessary.(16)

On December 2, 1994, in an "agreed-upon resolution" with the Department of Transportation after NHTSA's investigation into alleged defects related to fuel system safety in 1973-87 C-K pick-up trucks, General Motors agreed that the standard should be upgraded to use a more representative impacting device than the current standard, involve higher test speeds (about 40 mph) than the current standard, and include separate tests of the integrity of fuel system components, in addition to full vehicle tests at different impact locations.(17)

Obviously, the industry is reluctant to admit that FMVSS 301 is not the answer to automotive fuel system safety. Statistical data on rear-impact accidents and injuries show that manufacturers still have a long way to go. Most fires occur in crashes with a change in vehicle velocity during impact of less than 30 mph. Eighty-nine percent of fires in nonrollover rear impacts, 84 percent in frontal impacts, and 95 percent in side impacts occur in crashes with a change in vehicle velocity of less than 30 mph.

In a seven-year study from the National Accident Sampling System, 73 percent of burn fatalities did not have an impact-induced injury as severe as their burns, and 57 percent of deaths among burn victims were attributed to burns alone, suggesting these people would have survived if not for their burns.(18)


Early government efforts to impose fuel system crash safety standards coincided with products liability litigation involving dangerous and defective fuel system designs. Lawyers began taking on manufacturers under various theories, including strict liability, negligence, failure to warn, and breach of warranty. Relying on the then relatively new legal concept that manufacturers must foresee collisions as part of the design process and take steps to minimize injuries in a collision, plaintiffs began making progress in the courts.(19)

As fuel system crashworthiness litigation evolved, discovery uncovered startling documentary evidence. This showed the extent to which some manufacturers were aware of the severe potential for harm presented by certain designs and their failure to respond accordingly.

Some manufacturers weighed the cost of meeting proposed standards against the benefits of reducing injuries and deaths due to fires. These studies attached dollar values to potential deaths and injuries and then compared these "savings" with the cost of development, tests, and modifications.(20)

Other manufacturers conducted similar "cost/benefit" analyses and even published the results. One study by Volkswagen engineers compared "annual societal benefits," based on dollar values attached to deaths and injuries, with the cost of vehicle and test equipment relating to fuel system integrity.(21)

Plaintiffs used this evidence as grounds for their punitive damages claims. In Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co., a crashworthiness case involving a 1972 Pinto hatchback, the jury rendered a substantial punitive damages award against the manufacturer.(22)

On appeal, Ford contended the evidence was insufficient to support a finding of malice. The appellate court disagreed. It said that through crash test results, Ford knew the Pinto's fuel tank and rear structure would expose consumers to serious injury or death in a 20 to 30 mph collision.

The court found evidence that Ford could have corrected the design defects at minimal cost but instead worked up a cost/benefit analysis weighing human safety against corporate profits. The court concluded there was substantial evidence that Ford's conduct constituted "conscious disregard" of the probability of injury to the public.(23)

Since Grimshaw, there have been a number of successful punitive damages awards in fuel system crashworthiness cases around the country.(24)

Liability Theories

There are various liability theories that plaintiffs may rely on in proving these cases.

* Vulnerable location. In terms of the potential for fuel system compromise and post-collision fires, tank location is perhaps the most significant factor. Certain areas of a vehicle are more susceptible to damage and to deformation than other areas.

For decades, auto manufacturers have been aware that if tanks are located in areas likely to sustain deformation or be subject to intrusion from another vehicle, there is much greater probability of damage to the tank and resulting fuel leakage. Ignition from sources such as sparks from metal-to-metal contact can lead to fast-spreading and intense fuel fires and, thus, serious injury or death to occupants. Manufacturers have also been aware that certain economically and mechanically feasible locations are safer than others.

According to a 1975 study, 77 percent of fuel system ruptures resulted from rear-end collision damage.(25) Another study showed that although frontal impacts account for 60 percent to 70 percent of crash fires, rear-end impacts are three times as likely to result in fatal fire crashes.(26)

The typical passenger car's tank is located in the rear of the vehicle, often behind the axle near the rear bumper. This location is much more vulnerable to compromise of the tank, filler pipes, and fuel lines in a rear-end collision than tanks located above or in front of the rear axle, or below or behind the rear seat.

In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, industry literature and vehicle crash testing demonstrated that designs that placed the tank above or in front of the rear axle were feasible and much safer than behind-the-axle designs.

Location is also critical in side-impact crashes, particularly those involving saddle tanks mounted outside the frame rails. This design leaves the tank vulnerable to impact with only relatively flimsy sheet metal between the tank and the impacting vehicle.

* Hostile environment. A tank may be ideally located, but its environment may increase the risk of compromise. Interior components adjacent to a fuel tank, such as bolts, brackets, springs, mounting straps, and flanges, can very easily puncture a tank if it is pushed into them or if they are moved toward the tank in a collision.

Inexpensive fixes include changing the shape of the components or eliminating sharp edges to distribute impact loads over broader areas. If the part cannot be readily altered or relocated, metal or plastic shields can be placed between it and the tank.

Proof of the feasibility of designs that eliminate hostile environments can often be found in other vehicles made by the same manufacturer. For example, in a case involving a woman who was severely burned after a rear-end collision, the station wagon's tank punctured when it was pushed into a protruding spring mount bracket attached to the top of the axle.

A rental car driven by an expert had the identical spring and mounting location as the station wagon. However, the rental car's bracket had been shaped to conform to the contour of the axle, presenting a blunted broad surface area facing the tank.

* Component attachment failure. In many post-collision fires, fuel has leaked from areas where components have become separated or detached. The primary area is the filler neck-the tube through which fuel is fed into the tank. It is often placed where it can be easily pulled from the tank by sheet metal or structural members that shift relative to the tank in a collision.

If this occurs, a gaping hole is left where fuel pours from the tank. In addition, damage to the filler neck itself can cause leakage. Certain designs incorporate weak plastic tubes and attachment hardware.

Safer alternate designs include breakaway filler necks; longer filler pipes, which allow greater movement without complete disconnection from the tank; flexible pipes, which deform without pulling out or puncturing; and improved sealing methods, which reduce the risk of failure.

* Passenger compartment protection. If a fuel system has been compromised by impact forces, design of the vehicle's structure may increase the risk of injury or death. Inadequate separation between the passenger compartment and the tank can allow fuel and resulting fire to quickly enter the passenger area. Long ago, automotive engineers recommended the use of metal bulkheads to separate these areas. Yet, some designs use nothing more substantial than a seat cushion to separate them.

Working Toward Change

Fuel system safety has come a long way because of FMVSS 301 and products liability litigation. However, the standard is only a minimal standard, covering a small fraction of foreseeable and probable collision circumstances and speeds. As a result, many new vehicles that comply with the standard nevertheless use defective designs that create an unreasonable risk of injury or death from post-collision fires.

From a historical perspective, there is no reason to believe manufacturers will voluntarily support a more stringent standard. But, through continued efforts by conscientious attorneys, change for the better is inevitable.


(1) U.S. Patent Office, Gasoline Tank, U.S. Patent No. 2,090,197, Albert E. Haas & George H. Clay, Aug. 17, 1937. (2) U.S. Patent Office, Vehicle Fuel Tanks, U.S. Patent No. 2,808,892, Brooks Walker, Oct. 8, 1957. (3) DERWYN M. SEVERY ET AL., SOC'Y AUTOMOTIVE ENGINEERS, PUB NO. 680774, VEHICLE DESIGN FOR PASSENGER PROTECTION FROM HIGH-SPEED REAR-END COLLISIONS (Oct. 22, 1968). (4) RODNEY G. VAUGHAN, DEP'T MOTOR TRANSPORT, NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA, TRAFFIC ACCIDENT RESEARCH UNIT, PUB. NO. 70-001, FIRE IN ROAD ACCIDENTS (Jan. 1970). (5) NATIONAL HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMIN., PUB. NO. 197 616, PREVENTION OF ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS IGNITION OF AUTOMOTIVE CRASH FIRE (Mar. 1970). Contact Dynamic Science, 1800 W. Deer Valley Dr., Phoenix, AZ X5027. (6) 49 U.S.C. [subsections]30101-30166 ( 1996). (7) 32 Fed. Reg. 2,416 (1967). (8) Automobile Mfrs. Ass'n, Inc., Response to Request for Comments Re Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking No. 67 5 Docket 3-1, Mar. 18, 1968, No. 03-01-ANPRM-029. (9) Japan Automobile Mfrs. Ass'n, Inc., Response to Request for Comments Re Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking No. 67-5 Docket 3-1, No. 03-01-ANPRM-030. (10) 35 Fed. Reg. 13,799 (1970) (to be codified at 49 C.F.R. pt. 571) (proposed Aug. 29, 1970). (11) National Highway Safety Bureau, Japan Automobile Mfrs. Ass'n, Comments on Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Docket No. 70 20, Notice 1-Fuel System Integrity, Nov. 17, 1970, Pub. No. 70-20-NO1-004. (12) National Highway Safety Bureau, General Motors Corp., Comments on Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Docket 70-20, Notice 1 Fuel System Integrity, Nov. 30, 1970, Pub. No. 70-20-NO1-016. (13) 38 Fed. Reg. 22,397 (1973). (14) NATIONAL HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMIN., PUB. NO. 807 675, MOTOR VEHICLE FIRES IN TRAFFIC CRASHES AND THE EFFECTS OF THE FUEL SYSTEM INTEGRITY STANDARD (Nov 1990) [hereafter MOTOR VEHICLE FIRES]. Contact National Technical Information Service, 5285 Port Royal Rd., Springfield, VA 22161. (15) 57 Fed. Reg. 7,639 (1991). (16) General Motors Corp., Response to Request for Comments, Docket No. 96-66, Notice 1-Fuel System Integrity, Mar. 10, 1993, Pub. No. 92-66-NO1-023. (17) Letter from Federico Pena, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, to John F. Smith Jr., CEO and President, General Motors Corp. (Dec. 2, 1994). (18) SUSAN C. PARTYKA, NATIONAL HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMIN., FIRES AND BURNS IN TOWED LIGHT PASSENGER VEHICLE CRASHES (July 21, 1992). (19) Grundmanis v. British Motor Corp., 308 F. Supp. 303 (E.D. Wis. 1970); Johnson v. American Motors Corp., 225 N.W.2d 57 (N.D. 1974); Arbet v. Gussarson, 225 N.W.2d 431 (Wis. 1975). (20) Ford Environmental and Safety Engineering Inter Office Memorandum, Fatalities Associated with Crash Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires, E. S. Grush and C.S. Saunby (Sept. 18, 1973). (21) ULRICH SEIFFERT & ARNOLD ENSSLEN, SOC'Y AUTOMOTIVE ENGINEERS, PUB. NO. 770172, POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF FMVSS 301 ON MOTOR VEHICLE DEVELOPMENT AND DESIGN (1977) (22) 174 Cal. Rptr. 348 (Ct. App. 1981). (23) Id. (24) American Motors Corp. v. Ellis, 403 So. 2d 459 (Flat Dist. Ct. App. 1981); Toyota Motor Co. v. Moll, 438 So. 2d 192 (Flat Dist. Ct. App. 1983); Ford Motor Co. v. Stubblefield, 319 S.E.2d 470 (Ga. Ct. App. 1984); Maxey v. Freightliner Corp., 722 F.2d 1238 (5th Cir. 1984); Ford Motor Co. v. Durrill, 714 S.W.2d 329 (Text Ct. App. 1986); General Motors Corp. v. Moseley, 447 S.E.2d 302 (Ga. Ct. App. 1994). (25) INSURANCE INST. FOR HIGHWAY SAFETY, STATUS REPORT (Feb. 5, 1975). (26) MOTOR VEHICLE FIRES, supra note 14.
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Author:Calcagnie, Kevin F.
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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