GAO Study: DOD Not Properly Evaluating Truck Companies Hauling ‘Security-Sensitive Materials’

Do you drive any differently when sharing the highway with a truck hauling gasoline? What if you knew the truck in the lane next to you was hauling explosives…how would your driving change then?

Driving a commercial truck is a high-stress, difficult job as it is, but when truckers haul security-sensitive materials like explosives, missiles or ammunition, the job becomes far more stressful and downright dangerous, not just for the truck drivers themselves, but for the rest of us sharing the road with them.

In the fiscal year 2014, the Department of Defense (DOD) facilitated the transport of nearly 50,000 separate shipments of security-sensitive materials within the continental United States. DOD contracts with private-sector trucking companies to haul this sensitive material.

Not just any trucking company can haul security-sensitive materials—the Department of Defense uses safety performance data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) as well as its own internal inspections to evaluate whether or not carriers can properly transport high-risk material in accordance with the Transportation Protective Service (TPS) program. In other words, there are requirements that carriers have to meet and maintain in order to continue earning contracts to haul security sensitive materials for the government.

The question is, how stringent are these requirements?

According to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the DOT safety performance information that DOD relies on to evaluate the safety performance of commercial motor carriers that transport security sensitive materials under the TPS program simply isn’t sufficient or reliable.

DOT uses data from crash investigations, roadside inspections and other sources in order to create safety ratings for commercial truck carriers. These scores are known as Safety Measurement System (SMS) scores.

SMS scores track a carrier’s safety performance in several key areas, including hazardous materials compliance and vehicle maintenance. The scores can range anywhere from zero to 100 (a score of 100 would be the worst relative safety performance score, a zero would be the best relative safety performance score).

The GAO report stated that between November 2012 and October 2014, DOD contracted with 55 TPS carriers. Of those, seven did not even have a DOT safety rating. Twelve others had DOT safety ratings that were 20 years or older.

DOD conducts its own internal inspections of TPS carriers (using contractors), partially compensating for this issue, and officials with DOD told GAO that all inspected carriers passed. However, the GAO report maintains that DOD is not using readily available violation data to evaluate TPS carriers. For example, DOD doesn’t review data on violations related to the use of controlled substances among drivers who transport hazardous materials. Without reviewing the available violation data, DOD is not in a position to effectively evaluate the carriers it contracts to transport security-sensitive material, the report says.

Furthermore, while DOD does collect data stemming from incidents involving the carriers it contracts with, it doesn’t evaluate the data to determine if systemic trends and/or patterns are linked to safety risks. It also doesn’t fully investigate incidents to determine root causes, which doesn’t allow for appropriate safety recommendations to be made in the wake of an incident (or series of related incidents).

Crawfordville, Georgia - Truck Transporting Explosives Catches Fire 

In September of 2014, a truck caught fire while transporting explosives just outside of Crawfordville, Georgia. The truck’s trailer was scorched and the tires were completely burned off in the incident. Luckily (more precisely, miraculously), no injuries were reported in this incident. 

A DOD investigation into the Crawfordville incident didn’t begin until February of this year—more than four months after the fire occurred. Think of the implications…how can a thorough investigation of an incident like this provide definitive results when so many variables were allowed to change in the span of all that time?

The investigation report did not identify whether there was any damage to the explosive materials in the trailer, which is unsettling in and of itself. While the report on the Crawfordville incident contained findings, conclusions, and recommendations, the DOD contractor that investigated the incident failed to determine the cause of the incident because “no one was required to search for the root cause,” according to the GAO report. Officials with the U.S. Army agreed that the investigation was not completed because the cause was never identified.

Huson, Montana - Trailer Fire 

In December of 2014, a trailer hauling security-sensitive materials caught fire in Huson, Montana. Again, it took months for a DOD investigation to begin.

A DOD report on the investigation did not contain the cause of the incident, findings or conclusions on what caused the fire, nor did the report include recommendations on corrective steps to be taken for preventing similar incidents from occurring.

17,280 Hand Grenades in a Broken Down Tractor Trailer 

In May 2012, a truck driver that was hauling 17,280 hand grenades had to make an unscheduled stop to repair satellite equipment. It was later revealed and reported that the DOD transportation officer who inspected the truck knew that the satellite equipment was not working before the truck driver left the loading dock. For arms, ammunition, and explosives and other security-sensitive shipments that require satellite equipment, DOD requires an inspector to ensure that the satellite equipment is operable as part of the inspection prior to materials being loaded onto the truck.

The GAO report found that TPS carriers hauling high-risk materials experienced mechanical breakdowns on 749 occasions between 2011 and 2014. In nearly all of these breakdowns, the truck was stopped and out of service for more than 2 hours.

It’s Not What We Know…It’s What We Don’t Know That Frightens Us 

This is the heart of the problem—there are so many unknowns surrounding how and why these incidents involving security-sensitive shipments are happening. DOD doesn’t know if contracted carriers are truly safe because it isn’t asking the right questions, nor is it utilizing all of the resources it has to properly monitor and evaluate them. It also isn’t in a position to see if there are any trends pinpointing why carrier incidents are happening because subsequent investigations are inadequate.

The GAO’s recommendations to DOD make sense:

-     Address what actions need to be undertaken when carriers have absent or dated safety ratings, or if poor safety scores exist.
-     Document the consequences to be enforced in the event that carriers fail to meet program requirements.
-     Require reviews of available violation data.
-     Fully investigate incidents.

The consequences of doing nothing to address these concerns will not just affect highway safety, it’ll also affect our national security. With the ever-present threat of terrorism in the public consciousness, no one is comfortable knowing there are serious safety issues that aren’t being addressed in the transportation of security-sensitive materials across the country.