Upon last count, 190 people died in the Bahawalpur accident. A lot of debate, much of it in bad taste, has put the blame of the tragedy on the greed of people gathered on site to collect spilled petrol. Others have attributed the loss to the lack of government emergency services, absence of burn units or other post-accident factors. But so far, nobody has talked about why the accident happened in the first place.
Truck rollovers pose a common risk, especially for heavier trucks. According to experts, these can happen due to a number of reasons including partial liquid loads, poor condition of tyres, driver errors or inappropriate speed for the road environment and conditions.
Load management is extremely critical for gasoline trucks. For fully filled tanks, the centre of gravity shifts higher, thereby destabilising the vehicle on sharper turns. But partial loads can pose even greater risk through what is known as “slosh and surge” effect of liquids, where a sudden manoeuvre or swerving can cause wavelike movement of the liquid, destabilising the vehicle and potentially rolling over the truck in extreme cases.
To avoid truck rollovers, a number of precautions are taken, especially for gasoline tankers given the potential hazardous nature of the fuel. Such precautions include electronic and GPS monitoring, meticulous safety inspections, extensive training and simulations for drivers. It is customary for oil marketing companies (OMCs) to have rigorous safety regimes in place for their transportation contractors and ensure compliance. Driver proficiency is most important since the drivers through right application of skills can prevent many rollovers.
According to news reports, the gasoline tanker in Bahawalpur suffered a burst tyre, lost control and rolled over. Tyre bursts can occur due to a number of reasons, such as under-inflation, overloading of the vehicle or poor tyre maintenance. A number of checks are recommended to avoid them, including regular maintenance, timely replacement and meticulous visual inspections. Moreover, drivers are given special training on how to avoid an accident in case of a puncture. That is why OMCs and contractors frequently use refresher training, periodic performance appraisal, risk assessment of drivers and employ fatigue management protocols.
The Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority has prescribed technical standards for the petroleum industry regarding road transport of petroleum products since 2009. These standards, however, are limited to vehicle and tank design, and remain silent on other aspects such as driver training and qualification or safety and contingency planning.
It must also be noted that similar incidents have happened before internationally, where countless people have lost their lives while trying to make a small fortune out of a rolled over gasoline truck. These include the one in Mozambique in 2016, South Sudan in 2015, Nigeria in 2007 and 2012 and Congo in 2012. In the last few days, videos showing a similar incident in Okara last year have also surfaced on social media.
While we are likely to see an inquiry into this accident, any such inquiry must answer a few questions: Firstly, how did the safety regime fail? Was there a compromise in tyre maintenance or was the driver involved in over-speeding? Does the company using the tanker anticipate such an accident? If it does, what was the standard emergency response procedure and was it fully complied? It is also pertinent to find out how OMCs and their contractors have modified their emergency response procedures, in the wake of these global precedents. Lastly, it must be explored how well the driver was trained and if he underwent any risk assessment.
Though inquires cannot bring back the lost lives, they can surely feed into policies preventing such colossal accidents in future.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 1st, 2017.