Obsolete tankers exploit weak enforcement of safety valves, others, turn moving disasters on highways

Failure of most fuel tanker owners to renew their fleet or retrofit them with modern safety devices has persistently posed far-reaching dangers to lives and property, AFEEZ HANAFI writes   

Femi Williams was an accomplished businessman in his own right. Over the years, his multi-million naira block/concrete factory located around PZ Industrial Layout, Yola, Adamawa State, had sustained his two wives and six children as well as his workers and their families until September 13, 2021 when a tanker explosion killed the goose that laid the golden egg.

The fuel-laden tanker while negotiating Maidoki roundabout near the industrial layout fell, spilling its contents and catching fire afterwards. Although no life was lost, Williams and many shop owners lost their livelihoods to the inferno.

The aftermath of the tragedy had left Williams’ business in tatters, with all his factory equipment burnt down.

“I was in my house when the security guard called to tell me that fire had gutted the office. I rushed down and I saw the fire,” he narrated to Sunday PUNCH. 

“My production base was completely reduced to ashes. All my equipment got burnt. My moulders and vibrating machine for making concrete blocks worth over N8m got burnt. I really felt bad that day,” he recalled painfully, taking a pause before resuming the tepid account.

“My roller, the one I used for landscaping, also got burnt. The current market price for that roller is around N8m. My big concrete mixer, which I bought at N1.5m, also got burnt; the distribution van used for delivery of the concrete blocks and culverts equally got burnt.

“A car parked around my office got burnt, too. There’s a man, servicing generators. His 38 generators in a container were all burnt. I was just grateful that no life was lost,” he narrated, heaving a sigh.

“The fire disaster has been a big setback for all the traders here and their families,” Ashiru Yau, who ran a wholesale fruit store, bemoaned.

With two wives and 12 children depending on him, Yau has been plunged into distress without any succour in sight.

“We have families who depend on us. It was out of the daily earnings that we were able to cater for them. Now that our sources of livelihood have been destroyed in the tanker explosion we are left without anything to live on. I would like to appeal to the government to come to our rescue by assisting us,” he appealed.

Tanker accidents have become routine across the country, resulting in fatalities, loss of property and terrible traffic gridlock lasting for hours. While some of the crashes have been blamed on bad roads, in most cases, they stemmed from violation of safety requirements and reckless driving.

There have been growing complaints over the outdated state of most of the tankers plying Nigerian roads and the need to replace or retrofit them with modern safety devices such as anti-spill valves (otherwise known as safety valves), anti-skid, speed limiters, automatic emergency braking and onboard cameras to monitor drivers’ conduct during journeys.

Not only were two lives lost in the June 22, 2021 explosion in Ogere, along Lagos-Ibadan Expressway but also 13 vehicles – comprising eight tankers, three trucks and two cars – worth millions of naira were burnt after a petrol tanker suffered a break failure and rammed into another carrying diesel.

Reacting to the incident, the Sector Commander, Ogun State Command of the Federal Road Safety Corps, Ahmed Umar, urged tanker owners to install safety valves on their vehicles to curb incessant tanker explosions in the country, lamenting that some depot operators frustrated the agency from carrying out enforcement.

“In cases where depot authorities refuse to cooperate with the corps personnel to inspect such vehicles, that is why problems like tanker explosions happen,” he said.

Perhaps, another deadly explosion on November 6 involving a diesel tanker on the expressway would have been averted if the truck was fitted with safety valves or prevented from loading at the depot. Unfortunately, the driver and his motor boy (assistant) were burnt to death and 35 vehicles destroyed after the tanker fell on its side, spilled fuel and exploded.

On Wednesday, five persons and five vehicles parked along the road were burnt to death in another petrol tanker explosion around a filling station in Ogere. The FRSC blamed the incident on wrongful overtaking by the tanker driver.

Crashes amid weak safety enforcement

Minimum safety features expected of articulated trucks – tankers and trailers – plying the nation’s roads are clearly spelt out in the FRSC Safety Requirements/Guidelines for Articulated Lorries (tankers/trailers) Operations in Nigeria.

The guidelines stipulate that “road tankers” must have safety features such as balanced air-braking system (all axles),  fall protection harness, rear/side under-run protection, tank hatch and dome roll-over protection, stop, tail and wide turn lights, side and rear reflective tape, anti-lock braking system and fire extinguisher – 9kg dry chemical.’’

The document adds that at the loading point, FRSC officials will among others check for the tankers’ brake accessories, brake air pressure, brake failure warning light, brake pedal, hydraulic brake fluid, parking brake, clutch, delivery equipment, emergency equipment (fire extinguisher, reflective cones or triangles, spare bulbs and fuses), engine, fifth wheel, front axle, fuel system, horn, all lights and reflectors, mirrors, radiator, driver seat belt, steering mechanism, steering wheel, suspension, springs, air bags and controlling attachments, onboard computer, tank and tyres.

Aside from the features listed above, installation of speed limiting devices, safety valves, anti-skid, onboard cameras, and compliance to maximum loading capacity per tanker are of major concerns, said the FRSC Public Education Officer, Corps Commander Bisi Kazeem. The agency is also empowered to conduct periodic “safety audit” on tanker operators’ fleets.

Unfortunately, most tankers grossly deficient in these safety standards ply the roads on a daily basis without being seized, thereby shooting up statistics of crashes with attendant loss of lives and property that have thrown many families into sudden distress and untold hardship.

According to the FRSC, 359 tanker crashes were recorded in 2016 alone in Nigeria. Although the number declined to 308, 302 and 264 in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively, it rose to 375 in 2020. Already 267 tanker accidents – more than the 2019 figure – have been recorded between January and August 2021, bringing the disturbing tally to 1,875 tanker accidents in less than five years.

At the ‘Truck Renewal Workshop’ organised by the Major Oil Marketers Association of Nigeria and the Nigerian Association of Road Transport Owners in October 2019 in Abuja, MOMAN’s former chairman, Adetunji Oyebanji, lamented that about 80 per cent of 10,000 tankers used for transporting petroleum products across the country lacked safety features.

“They don’t have anti-rollover, anti-spill protection, automatic braking systems, onboard cameras and onboard tracking system required for safe transportation of petroleum products by road,” Oyebanji remarked, stressing that MOMAN was in talks with NARTO on the need for fleet renewal.

Earlier, the Corps Marshall, FRSC, Boboye Oyeyemi, said the corps was set to begin the enforcement of ‘no-safety-valve-no-loading policy’ to address the alarming tanker accidents.

At the corps’ end of the year patrol media briefing in December 2020, Boboye said February 1, 2021 was set as the deadline for the installation of safety valves in petroleum tankers, noting that the device was crucial in preventing tanker explosions.

But nine months after the deadline, many tanker owners have yet to comply as incidents of fallen oil trucks, spillage and explosions pile up.

Following the death of 12 persons and destruction of property in the April 18 2021 tanker explosion in the Agatu Local Government Area of Benue State, the state’s FRSC Sector Commander, Yakubu Mohammad, warned tanker owners to ensure “immediate installation of safety valves on their tankers,” saying that any driver caught in contravention of the standard risked going to jail.

Like several other crashes, Mohammed said the tanker had lost control, spilled fuel and burst into flames. But despite his warning, many tanker explosions that would have been averted by enforcing installation of safety valves and other safety features had occurred afterwards.

Tanker owners admit safety breach

In a communiqué issued after its national executive council/state chairmen joint meeting held on Saturday, October 16, 2021 at Sagamu, Ogun State, NARTO expressed concerns “about the rate at which tanker explosions take place due to the highly inflammable material catching fire whenever there is impact or crash.”

Signed by the association’s National President, Alhaji Yusuf Othman and Executive Secretary, Aloga Ogbogo, NARTO admitted in the communiqué that the requirement by the FRSC for tanker owners to “install safety valves on their vehicles is the only viable solution to stop oil spillage during crashes.”

It directed all petroleum tanker operators to immediately comply with the FRSC directive before the new deadline, February 1, 2022. While the ultimatum lasts, the number of possible tanker accidents and their resultant casualties that will be recorded is better imagined. There were five reported cases already – October 17 tanker explosion on Otedola Bridge, Lagos; October 23 fuel spillage in Surulere, Lagos; October 26 gas tanker explosion in the Fadeyo area of Lagos; November 6 and 17 incidents in Ogere– within a month into the communiqué.

Worryingly, NARTO said its members were having difficulty in maintaining their fleets and buying new vehicles as a result of the high foreign exchange rate.

The communiqué added, “Vehicles and spare parts are imported at prices that are quoted in foreign currency. Meanwhile, the exchange rate had risen by over 50 per cent during the past one year. As a result, buying spare parts and other vehicle components such as batteries and tyres is very difficult while vehicle replacement becomes virtually impossible for most transporters.”

Tanker drivers, MOMAN, DAPPMAN lament

Disturbed by the spate of tanker crashes across the country, the Chairman, Petroleum Tanker Drivers, an arm of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, Sunmonu Oladiti, in March 2021 threatened that tanker drivers would embark on nationwide strike if the installation of safety valves was not enforced with effect from May 1, lamenting that “these fire incidents are becoming too many but definitely avoidable.”

It took the intervention of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation to prevail on the PTD to shelve the strike at the expiration of the May 1 deadline.

Oladiti told our correspondent last week that “most of the tanker owners” had yet to comply even after the union met with the NNPC management and other agencies in the downstream sector.

He said, “They talked to tanker owners and all of them promised that by February 2022, any tanker without safety valves will not be allowed to load across the country. However, somebody has to enforce it. The government has the capacity to enforce it. Any tanker without safety valves should not be allowed to load and any depot that loads for them should be sanctioned. It is simple.”

Commenting on reckless driving by many tanker drivers, Oladiti said the PTD organised constant training for its members and had set up a task force to monitor, arrest and discipline those violating traffic rules.

MOMAN Executive Secretary, Clement Isong, maintained that most tankers currently on Nigerian roads were old and lacked safety features installed in modern trucks. He said many of the tankers were as old as vehicles manufactured many years ago.

He stated, “Modern tankers have anti-rollover which makes it almost impossible for a tanker to roll over; anti-spill (safety valves) device so that even if it rolls over, it will ensure the product does not spill. They also have internal and external cameras to keep drivers in check.

“With the cameras, the driver cannot come up with excuses on what caused the accident. The cameras are recording the driver and what is happening. Sometimes, if the driver is tired and feeling sleepy the camera picks him. It not only wakes up the driver but also alerts the tanker owner who can easily instruct the driver to park at the next place and rest.

“They also come with speed limiters and satellite tracking useful in monitoring the speed of tankers. There are many safety features in modern trucks but we have not upgraded in Nigeria simply because the supply chain does not generate enough money that will allow operators to renew their fleets. We have reached a stage where operators need to do away with trucks that are 30-40 years old.”

The Executive Secretary, Depot and Petroleum Products Marketers Association of Nigeria, Olufemi Adewole, also acknowledged the rising trend of fuel spillage and tanker explosions, adding that the association was fully in support of the safety standards.

On why tankers without safety valves were allowed to load at depots, he said, “We are complying and sensitising our customers. Our safety crew at the entrance to our depots and the FRSC officials who are in charge of Safe to Load Operations are jointly checking the trucks and anyone that does not meet the requirement is not allowed to load.”

But a depot official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told our correspondent that tankers without safety valves “are still allowed to load,” confirming the Ogun State FRSC sector commander’s claim that some depot authorities did not cooperate with the corps personnel to inspect tankers.

Excess tank capacity

Tanker accidents have also been traced to trucks conveying tanks above the maximum limit of 33,000-litre fuel. Against the backdrop of accidents involving fuel tankers, the then Lagos Zonal Operations Controller of the defunct Department of Petroleum Resources, Mr Wole Akinyosoye, promised at the zone’s 2019 Annual General Meeting that the agency would enforce the standard.

He had said, “Many of the roads were constructed to have a maximum carrying capacity of 30 tonnes (about 33,000 litres). The Nigerian law only allows for 33,000 litres to be loaded out of the depots. Today, we have 45,000 litres, 60,000 litres, and sometimes 90,000 litres loaded out of the depots.

“We admit that the DPR is culpable in these circumstances. But the department has taken a decision because of what has been happening in the last two to three months that we have to enforce the maximum limit, which is 33,000 litres, on our roads.”

But two years on, the violation had persisted, Oladiti confirmed to our correspondent, saying that the government had not shown the will to enforce the rule.

He stated, “Excess tank capacity is part of what is damaging our roads and causing accidents. We have been crying out but in Nigeria we politicise everything. It is just for the government to say henceforth tankers above the required capacity will not be allowed on the roads. Any tanker owner that violates the directive should be sanctioned.”

The newly formed Nigerian Midstream and Downstream Petroleum Regulatory Authority could not be reached for comments on what was being done to stop the dangerous practice

However, a reliable source in the oil sector involved in the DPR’s decision disclosed to Sunday PUNCH that attempts to enforce it were being frustrated.

“I am aware of three attempts. The implementation was stopped because calls came from ‘the above.’ People who are involved in it (excess tank capacity) have access to the seat of power,” the official said.

We’ll intensify enforcement – FRSC

Kazeem explained that the February 2021 deadline for installation of safety valves was a resolution reached by the Presidential Task Force on Haulage Operation in Nigeria and not the corps alone, stating that the agency’s role was to ensure effective enforcement that would lead to desired compliance.

He claimed that compliance was “above average” so far, noting that the ongoing consultation and enforcement through special patrol operations were yielding positive results.

“But that does not suggest we have achieved the desired success. There is more push to be done here and there; more awareness campaigns to be carried out on the dangers of non-compliance, and more drastic enforcement,” he added.

He said the agency was exploring consultation, sensitisation, drivers training, advocacies and enforcement simultaneously.

Resolving tanker crashes

Indeed, replacing moribund fleets could be challenging for many tanker owners given the prevailing miserably low exchange rate of naira to dollar in the country, resulting in high cost of imports and inflation.

The poor economic situation notwithstanding, safety of lives and property should not be compromised, the transport safety management coordinator at Total Nigeria Plc, Abdulwaheed Alaga, said.  “Old tankers can be retrofitted with most of these devices,” Alaga stated.

The safety expert said most operators were unwilling to bear the cost of installing modern safety features in their tankers, advising that the installations could be phased to reduce the financial burden.

He said, ““Overtime, their costs must have changed but they are affordable if safety is prioritised by the owners. First, owners should ensure that tanks carrying dangerous goods are well secured. They must have valves that can lock back the content automatically if there is any impact on the tank.

“Afterwards, they can install onboard computers – small chip packs of computers wired to the truck to monitor the driving patterns in terms of speed or night driving. It is a bit different from speed limiting devices.

“Unlike a speed limiter, you can activate an onboard computer to talk. It reports the speed at which the driver is driving. If it is excess, it will alert the driver. After the onboard computer, install artificial intelligence cameras that can monitor the driver. If a driver is tired, it will capture it and send a signal.”

Alaga also advised operators to invest in road surveys by collecting data on black spots and processing it into a technologically-enabled guide that drivers can rely on during trips.

He stated, “An expert will study the road and come back with data on good and dangerous spots. Instead of keeping the data manually, it should be converted into digital information such that the information can be played back onboard to drivers as they are travelling.

“We have actually researched it. It is like a Google navigator; we then superimpose additional information on black spots on it so that it can speak to the driver in three Nigerian languages of Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa as well as English and pidgin.

“Even if the driver is not educated, he will understand any of the local languages. All these things and add-ons including the kind of training to be given to drivers are yet to be done at a large scale in Nigeria.”

Also, the National Executive Director, Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, Paul Ndibe, maintained that unfavourable exchange rate should not be an excuse for poor maintenance of tankers to the detriment of lives and property.

He said effective monitoring should be enforced at the loading point to curb tanker crashes drastically.

Ndibe added, “Due diligence should also be done before issuing licences to tankers. Any tanker that does not have equipment certification should not be allowed to load petroleum products. That will drive the owner to install safety devices.

“Also, integrity tests should be carried out on tanks. Many companies are constructing tanks but who is measuring the strength of metal used for construction? Who is certifying them for use? They must be subjected to a test to determine their strength.

“A certificate of fitness should be issued by an approved agency to a tank that meets the quality control and numbered for verification at depots. The ones that are defective should not be allowed to lift products. The tanks should be standardised.”

A Transport Geography Professor at the Lagos State University, Ojo, Samuel Odewumi, also stressed the need to subject tank manufacturing companies in the country to “serious inspection,” urging the government to encourage operators to acquire new trucks by slashing the import duties by half.

Odewumi equally canvassed for periodic training of drivers, testing them for drug and fixing of bad portions of the roads.

He lamented that enforcement “has become a difficult thing,” especially in Lagos which should set the standards.

He said, “Almost all tankers pass through Lagos unfortunately this leading horse is terribly handicapped in enforcing safety rules. Enforcing safety rules on the tank capacity, safety valves, and others is a problem. The FRSC and other agencies should enforce the rules to ensure sanity. Where you are struggling with enforcement, anything goes and that is why we are in this situation.”
SOURCE: THE PUNCH

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