It’s the costliest hazardous materials spill on a Massachusetts highway in a decade.
It happened on April 17, 2020, just after 2 a.m. in Revere Beach, just north of Boston, on a dry, clear, sunny day.
A report from the Department of Transportation showed that a tractor-trailer carrying gasoline mixed with ethyl alcohol made a detour at high speed and overturned. The accident spilled the big rig’s entire load, about 10,000 gallons of liquid, onto Highway 1A and into nearby saltwater marshes.
Police cited the uninjured driver for making a turn at an unsafe speed.
Damage to the tractor trailer, gasoline damage and marsh cleanup costs exceeded $1.1 million.
Highway safety experts told CBS News that the crash could have been prevented if a system called electronic stability control had been used.
Understandably, much national attention was focused on the safety of transporting hazardous materials by rail following the February 3, 2023 train accident in East Palestine, Ohio. Smoke and fire erupted Following its derailment 11 tanker train cars carrying hazardous materials including Plastic chloride. Hundreds of nearby residents were evacuated from their homes after some of the chemicals spilled, and first responders had to release more chemicals to contain the explosion.
But a CBS News investigation found that accidents involving dangerous and toxic chemicals are actually far more likely 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 large rigs on our roadways.
PHMSA is an agency within the US Department of Transportation established to protect people and the environment by promoting the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials. To do this, the agency tracks the transportation of hazardous materials by various means such as air, highway, pipeline and rail. The agency also establishes national policy, sets and enforces standards, educates and conducts research on incident prevention, and works to train first responders in the event of accidents.
Over the past 10 years, the number of big rig accidents involving hazardous materials has increased two and a half times, a 155% increase.
In fact, 64% of the damages attributed to highway tractor trailer accidents are from any mode of transportation of hazardous materials, or about $512 million.
In the past 10 years, according to PHMSA data, hazmat incidents involving tractor trailers in transit have resulted in 52 fatalities and 160 injuries.
“There are more than two million shipments of hazmat in the United States every day. Most of it is traveling by highway,” said Bob Richard, former deputy associate administrator for hazardous materials safety with PHMSA from 2006 to 2010 under President George W. W. Bush.
“The majority of incidents involve flammable liquids, primarily flammable liquids for home fuel oil, heating the home,” Richard said. “The number one item (to spill) is paint. By far (it’s) the thing that spills the most.”
While working with the federal government, Richard helped develop and enforce hazardous materials safety regulations both in the United States and internationally. He is now president of his own consulting firm called Hazmat Safety Consulting.
“If you look at all the data released by the agency, you’ll see that” human error is the No. 1 cause of accidents, Richard said.
Human error accounts for 18% of transit accidents, or about 1 in every 5 hazmat accidents on the road.
“And when I was there (at DOT), it was a concern,” Richard said. “That’s probably the most challenging thing to deal with. So, you know, some of the new technology that’s coming out for truck drivers” can contribute to combating and reducing that problem, which can help prevent accidents.
Richard talks about safety technologies 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. These features are already widely available.
That’s why experts from accident investigators to truck drivers to company owners tell CBS News that these on-board safety technologies are so valuable and should be used and needed.
But CBS News found that security technology has moved faster than government policy over the decades.
Despite recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board nearly three decades ago, federal regulators still do not require all of these technologies in commercial trucks, including those carrying hazardous materials.
Boyle Transportation, based near Boston, is one of those companies not waiting for government regulators. Boyle Transportation already fully utilizes all of these systems in each of the 100 or more truck cabs it owns.
“Starting nearly 25 years ago, in the late 1990s, we were early adopters of many of these onboard safety systems,” said Andrew Boyle, vice president of Boyle Transportation.
“It’s safe to say that we invest a lot and go a little overboard on equipment,” Boyle said, “but we also try to train people so they’re in a position to be safe and successful.”
“We’ve made dramatic improvements using these systems in conjunction with cameras and personalized training and really gotten results,” said Boyle Transportation Safety Manager Mike Lasko. “We haven’t had a preventable, recordable accident since 2019. And the previous one was in 2014.”
Maverick Trucking, out of North Little Rock, Arkansas, told CBS News it has also seen an improvement in accident rates since installing these safety technologies on its big rigs.
Big rig driver Jackie Wegener, who has driven for Boyle Transportation for more than a decade, said the new technology may be an adjustment for some fellow drivers, but it has made his job and life better.
“I think it’s radically changing the way trucks are driven,” Wegener said. “I feel safer as a driver with that on board.”
When asked why people should care about this issue, he did not hesitate to answer.
“Human life,” Wegener said. This technology is “important and valuable regardless of anything else. And that’s what matters most.”
This is technology that the NTSB has been recommending installed on commercial trucks since 1995.
In its latest public notice on the subject, Top 10 Transportation Safety Recommendations 2022-2023, the NTSB again recommends requiring collision avoidance technology in commercial vehicles.
The latest NTSB recommendation comes after investigators released their report on a chain reaction accident that occurred in Phoenix on June 9, 2021. NTSB investigators determined a big rig crashed into a stopped line of seven passenger cars 62 miles after a tanker trailer. In the hour, four people were killed and 11 people, including a 6-year-old child, were injured.
On March 28, 2023, during a hearing where investigators released their findings, NTSB officials said the entire tragedy could have been avoided if the big rig had had collision avoidance technology.
“We will do everything in our power to strengthen security so that this never happens 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), estimated in a 2017 report that driver assistance technologies such as automatic emergency braking could prevent 11,000 accidents each year.
Yet despite all this, few of these safety measures are enforced by federal regulators.
CBS News asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg why the DOT doesn’t require these safety technologies on every truck on the road.
“There’s a lot of new technology coming online that has a lot of promise,” Buttigieg said. “It doesn’t mean that the moment you see something exciting, it’s something you might need everyone to accept.”
“On the one hand, it (the technology) can help warn you when you’re drifting out of your lane. It can help make you aware that there’s a car in front of you that you’re getting too close to. On the other hand, a pattern we’ve seen is that It can actually make drivers pay less attention.”
In 2020, the Department of Transportation awarded a $7.5 million grant to a 16-member research team led by Virginia Tech to develop a plan to safely integrate these systems into trucks. The study is scheduled to be completed in 2024.
“Because sometimes the promise of these technologies, they need to be tested, especially when you look at these advanced driver assistance systems,” Buttigieg said.
Bob Richard’s concern is the potential for major hazardous materials accidents “in highly populated areas where chlorine is eliminated by a toxic substance, such as chlorine, could be one of them”. “It can evaporate, and it creates a cloud. And depending on the wind conditions, you know, it can be quite dangerous.”
Throughout his decades of experience around hazardous materials, Richard said he has concluded that the federal government could do more to coordinate safety regulations and protocols.
“It’s multiple agencies working together. And sometimes government agencies don’t cooperate as much as they could,” Richard said.
Security manager Lasko suggests that the cost of this technology may be the biggest delay with regulators. Lasko said Boyle Transportation spent $10,000 to $20,000 to install the technology in every tractor cab it owns.
Richard said, in his experience, these costs were factored in when regulators decided not to require such technology.
“You have a lot of what I call mom-and-pop trucking,” Richard said. “You know, you might have a guy who owns his own truck. So, would he be able to economically go out and retrofit his truck with all those systems? Probably not.”