Worn roads pose biggest hazmat safety risk

August 1, 2002 By    

Rising demand and wear and tear on the nation’s roadways – not problems with security, per se – is causing the biggest problems for transporting hazardous materials. Improving roadways would increase hazmat transit safety more than specifically addressing hazmat transportation shortcomings, according to a report from the Research and Special Programs Administration.

Amid concern of terrorist activity last fall, Congress directed RSPA to study the issue. “What our report basically says is that we have a system and it works,” says agency spokesman Pat Klinger.

The overall record of hazardous materials transportation is good. Despite dramatic increases in the number of shipments and the volume of hazardous materials being shipped over the past decade, the rate of reported hazardous materials incident – and the consequences of those incidents – have been declining, the report says.

It also says the federal government doesn’t routinely check transportation routes exclusively for hazmat safety on the theory that the same criteria apply for transporting people and other goods. RSPA concluded it wouldn’t be worth the time and expense to do so.

The agency also expressed doubt that changing transportation routes would significantly enhance safety. Rerouting away from population centers would expose fewer people to risk, but the greatest use of hazardous materials is near population centers where industrial centers and people are located. Since those areas tend to develop around transportation links, rerouting away from population centers would increase transit time and distance and heighten chances of accidents or terrorist attack.

Also, less-populated areas tend to have less well-prepared emergency response teams to deal with incidents.

RSPA also doubts the utility of creating a centralized data collection and distribution system on shipments. While it would be technically possible, shippers would undergo terrible burdens reporting every move. Similarly, responders could be overwhelmed with information that they might not have time to process.

Instead of focusing on hazmat-specific action, the nation needs to improve its highways to make moving hazmat safer, RSPA suggests. According to reports from individual states, only 16 percent of the nation’s roads in very good condition. Twenty five percent are in good condition, 40 percent are mediocre, and 6 percent are in poor shape.

Those ratings have improved only slightly in the last nine years. The percentage of the interstate system rated acceptable inched from 91 percent to 92 percent. The percentage of roads with lanes at least 12 feet wide rose from 52 percent to 53 percent.

Driving propane over bridges causes even more concern. Four years ago, 99,503 of 289,222 bridges owned by local governments were deemed deficient, and 13 percent of the nation’s bridges were “structurally obsolete.”

As with roads, improvements have been slight. The percentage of deficient bridges has fallen from 31 percent to 29 percent since 1995.

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