Hazmat road accidents have more than doubled in the past decade
▶ Watch Video: Hazmat incidents on U.S. roads on the rise
It was the costliest hazardous materials spill on a highway in Massachusetts in the past decade.
It happened on a dry, clear, sunny day just after 2 o’clock in Revere Beach, just north of Boston, on April 17, 2020.
A Department of Transportation report shows a tractor trailer hauling gasoline mixed with ethyl alcohol took a roundabout much too fast and flipped over. The crash spilled the big rig’s entire load, nearly 10,000 gallons of liquid in all, onto Highway 1A and into a nearby saltwater marsh.
Police cited the driver, who was unhurt, for taking the curve at an unsafe speed.
The cost of damage to the tractor trailer, loss of gasoline and cleanup of the marsh exceeded $1.1 million.
It was the exact type of crash that highway safety experts tell CBS News a system called Electronic Stability Control could have prevented, had it been used.
Understandably, much national attention focused on the safety of transporting hazardous materials on railroads after the East Palestine, Ohio, train crash on February 3, 2023, when smoke and fire erupted following the derailment of 11 tanker train cars carrying hazardous materials including vinyl chloride. Hundreds of nearby residents were evacuated from their homes after some of the chemicals spilled and first responders had to release more of the chemicals in order to prevent an explosion.
But CBS News Investigations found the likelihood of an accident involving hazardous and toxic chemicals is actually far greater on the roads, where you and your family drive every day.
CBS News analyzed 10 years of incident data from the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). It shows that for every hazardous materials incident involving a train, there are 33 hazmat incidents involving big rigs on our roadways.
PHMSA is an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation established to protect people and the environment by advancing the safe transport of energy and other hazardous materials. To do this, the agency tracks the transportation of hazardous materials through various means such as air, highway, pipeline and rail. The agency also establishes national policy, sets and enforces standards, educates and conducts research to prevent incidents, and works to train first responders in the event of an accident.
Over the last 10 years, the number of big rig accidents involving hazardous materials has jumped two and a half times, an increase of 155%.
In fact, tractor trailer accidents on highways account for 64% of all damages from any type of mode of transporting hazardous materials, or almost $512 million.
In the past 10 years, according to the PHMSA data, there have been 52 fatalities and 160 injuries due to hazmat incidents involving tractor trailers in transit.
“There are over two million shipments of hazmat every day in the United States of America. Most of that stuff is moving by highway,” said Bob Richard, former deputy associate administrator for Hazardous Materials Safety with PHMSA from 2006 to 2010, under President George W. Bush.
“Most of the incidents involve flammable liquids, primarily combustible liquids for fuel oil for homes, home heating,” Richard said. “The number one item (to spill) is paint. By far (that’s) the thing that’s spilled the most.”
While serving with the federal government, Richard helped develop and implement hazardous materials safety regulations both in the U.S. and internationally. He’s now president of his own consulting firm called Hazmat Safety Consulting.
“If you look at all the data that’s published by the agency, you can see that” human error is the No. 1 cause of accidents, said Richard.
Human error accounted for 18% of those in-transit incidents, or nearly 1 out of every 5 hazmat accidents on the road.
“And when I was there (at DOT), that was a concern,” Richard said. “It’s probably the most challenging thing to deal with. So, you know, some of the new technology that’s coming out for truck drivers could contribute to” addressing and reducing that problem, to help prevent accidents.
Richard is talking about safety technology such as collision avoidance, cameras monitoring truck drivers, lane assistance, satellite tracking, computer-assisted navigation, roll-over prevention, and forward-facing radar that trips automatic braking if anything gets too close. Those features are already widely available.
That’s why experts from crash investigators to truck drivers to company owners tell CBS News that these on-board safety technologies are so valuable and should be used and required.
But CBS News found that for decades safety technology has moved at a faster pace than government policy.
Federal regulators have yet to require all this technology in commercial trucks, including those carrying hazardous materials, despite the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations that it be adopted dating back almost three decades.
Boyle Transportation, located near Boston, is one of those companies that isn’t waiting on government regulators. Boyle Transportation already fully utilizes all these systems in every one of the 100 or so truck cabs it owns.
“Starting about 25 years ago, kind of late nineties, we began as an early adopter of many of these onboard safety systems,” said Andrew Boyle, co-president of Boyle Transportation.
“It’s safe to say that we invest very heavily and go a little bit extra in terms of equipment,” said Boyle, “but then we also try to train people so that they’re also in a position to be safe and successful.”
“We’ve improved dramatically utilizing these systems in conjunction with cameras and individualized training and has really driven results,” said Boyle Transportation safety manager Mike Lasko. “We haven’t had a preventable, recordable accident since the year 2019. And the one prior to that was in 2014.”
Maverick Trucking, out of North Little Rock, Arkansas, tells CBS News that it has also seen improvements in accident rates since installing these safety technologies on its big rigs.
Big rig driver Jackie Wegener, who has been driving for Boyle Transportation for more than a decade, says the new technology may be an adjustment for some fellow drivers, but it’s made her job and life better.
“I think it’s firmly changing the way that truck driving is done,” Wegener said. “I feel safer as a driver having it on board.”
When asked why people should care about this issue, she didn’t hesitate to give her answer.
“Human life,” Wegener said. This technology “is important and valuable regardless of anything else. And that’s the bottom line.”
It’s technology that the NTSB has been recommending since 1995 be installed aboard commercial trucks.
In its latest public notice on this subject, the 2022-2023 Top 10 Transportation Safety Recommendations, the NTSB yet again recommended collision avoidance technologies be required in commercial vehicles.
The latest NTSB recommendation comes after its investigators released their report on a chain reaction crash that took place in Phoenix on June 9, 2021. NTSB investigators determined a big rig pulling a tanker trailer slammed into a stopped line of seven passenger cars at 62 miles an hour, killing four people and injuring 11, including a 6-year-old child.
During a March 28, 2023, hearing where investigators releasing their findings, NTSB officials said the entire tragedy could have been avoided had there been collision avoidance technology on board the big rig.
“We will do everything in our power to strengthen safety so this will never happen again,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said during the hearing.
Even the federal agency that sets rules and regulations for trucks, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in a 2017 report, estimated that driver assistance technology such as automatic emergency braking could prevent 11,000 crashes every year.
Yet in spite of all of this, few of these safety systems have been implemented by federal regulators.
CBS News asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg why the D.O.T. doesn’t require these safety technologies in every truck out on the road.
“There’s a lot of new technology coming online that has a lot of promise,” Buttigieg said. “That doesn’t mean that the moment you see something exciting, that’s something you can just require that everybody adopt.”
“On one hand, it (the technology) can help alert you when you’re drifting out of your lane. It can help make you aware that there’s a vehicle in front of you that you’re getting too close to. On the other hand, one pattern we’ve seen is that that can actually lull drivers into paying less attention.”
In 2020, the Department of Transportation did give a 16-member research team led by Virginia Tech a $7.5 million grant to develop plans to integrate these systems safely into trucks. The research is scheduled to wrap up in 2024.
“Because sometimes the promises of these technologies, they need to be checked out, especially when you look at this advanced driver assistance systems,” Buttigieg said.
What worries Bob Richard are potential large hazardous materials accidents “in a highly densely populated areas where there’s a release of what’s called a toxic by annihilation material, like chlorine would be one of those,” he said. “It could vaporize, and it creates a cloud. And depending on the wind conditions, you know, it could be quite dangerous.”
Throughout his many decades of experience around hazardous materials, Richard said he’s concluded the federal government could do more to coordinate safety rules and protocols.
“It’s multiple agencies working together. And sometimes government agencies don’t collaborate as well as they could,” said Richard.
Safety manager Lasko suggests that the cost of this technology may cause the biggest delay with regulators. Lasko says Boyle Transportation spent between $10,000 and $20,000 putting this technology in every tractor cab it owns.
Richard said, in his experience, these costs were factored in when regulators opted not to require such technology.
“You have a lot of what I call mom-and-pop trucking,” Richard said. “You know, you could have one guy who owns his own truck. So, is he going to be able to economically go out and refit his truck with all those systems? Probably not feasible.”