Ten years after the September 11 terror attacks, the United States has a spectacularly inexcusable problem regulating motor carriers that haul hazardous materials. The U.S. Department of Transportation and its bureaucratic dysfunction are to blame.
Under the law, shippers of hazardous materials must use only motor carriers certified to carry the material. Unfortunately, shippers can’t turn to the DOT for timely, reliable information about which carriers are, or are not, certified. What is more, the DOT, the sole source of this kind of information, cannot rely on its own data to determine which motor carriers are authorized to handle hazardous materials.
Yes, you read that correctly.
The DOT’s knowledge of certified hazmat haulers is spotty, at best, leaving shippers seeking to verify certification with substantial uncertainty. Verifying hazardous materials certificates from carriers is important for security reasons, of course, but also for reasons of potential liability and because it quite simply makes good business to know that the carrier has the capability and experience to handle specialized cargoes. Shippers can ask carriers for that certification, of course, but relying on faxed paper certificates raises the risk of forgeries, expired certificates and other problems.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is the agency within the DOT that regulates motor carrier safety, except for issuing hazardous materials certificates. As it turns out, hazmat certificates are issued to motor carriers by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — a different DOT agency. But PHMSA is failing in this critical area of national security and safety responsibility.
PHMSA hazmat data is made available to the public in a file called REGIS10. This file is intended to list company names, certificate numbers, expiration dates and so on, so the public can identify and verify hazmat-certified carriers. Unfortunately, the REGIS10 file is useless; it is fraught with errors and omissions, with few, if any, database rules to prohibit alpha characters from showing in numeric-only fields. It’s a disaster — a mess to sort through, and largely useless for its intended purpose.
Shippers, law enforcement agencies and carriers, depend on PHMSA to do its job so we can all do ours. PHMSA’s failures leave our nation and our citizens on the roadways in harm’s way.
Over at FMCSA, they are busy completely overhauling America’s motor carrier highway safety regime under the new Compliance, Safety and Accountability program. FMCSA issues and revokes operating authority, and regulates every interstate motor carrier in America, and many intrastate carriers. FMCSA’s CSA program is designed to improve commercial vehicle safety and FMCSA’s ability to review more carriers each year.
Here’s FMCSA’s problem. In part because PHMSA’s data is in such appalling condition, the FMCSA program does not connect to the PHMSA database. This leaves FMCSA in the unenviable position of not knowing which motor carriers actually are certified to handle hazardous materials. How does the agency do that? Well, it has to guess.
CSA more strictly scrutinizes and regulates hazmat carriers, compared to non-hazmat carriers, by design. In order to do this, FMCSA has been forced to develop a system to guess which drivers are hazmat carriers. FMCSA’s first attempt at guessing was to count every carrier that self-reported that it hauls hazmat cargoes. That did not work out. FMCSA’s second attempt at guessing, announced Aug. 22, 2011, was to track data reported via roadside inspections or safety audits, identifying where a carrier was carrying placarded quantities of hazmat cargo. An ever so faint improvement, but it is still guessing.
No guess will ever be as effective or justifiable as getting the data cleanly and clearly from PHMSA — the source of the problem. Then, yes, by all means supplement that hazmat-certified data with roadside inspections, audit findings and hazmat permits.
FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro acknowledges certain challenges with hazmat data and is receptive to the idea that this issue requires attention. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the House subcommittee on transportation security, became aware of this situation and on Sept. 8, 2011, agreed to meet with industry representatives to address this gaping security hole.
A reasonable person would expect, in our ever more wired, connected, and security-conscious world, that it would take mere seconds to electronically and definitively verify from government sources whether a carrier is hazmat-certified, and whether the certification term is in effect. Every member of the public, all government agencies, and law enforcement personnel should be able to quickly access such data, and rely upon it. Today, nobody can.
PHMSA must fix this now. It’s a national security threat, a national safety threat, and now with CSA, it is also directly harming the businesses of carriers that are inaccurately being categorized as hazmat carriers.
Jeffrey Tucker is CEO of Tucker Company Worldwide, a third-party logistics operator based in Cherry Hill, N.J. Contact him at email@example.com.