The recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, has drawn attention to the amount of hazardous materials moved across our country every day in furtherance of agriculture, manufacturing, and the overall economy.  You may be surprised just how much of this cargo is traveling right next to you on the roadways.

Today we have a very brief primer on commercial motor vehicles (CMV) and hazardous materials (HazMat).  We will rely heavily on the Commercial Driver Guide (CDG) from the Washington Department of Licensing, especially Section 9, which is entirely devoted to HazMat.  In general, the rules around this type of cargo are designed to “Contain the Product, Communicate the Risk, Ensure Safe Drivers and Equipment.” (CDG, 2.23.2).

Undoubtedly the most common configuration you see on the road hauling hazardous materials is the single or double tanker trailers with gasoline.  They look similar to this:

The red placard on the rear and side of each tank tells you the commodity and the nature of the hazard.  Gasoline is 1203, and the 3 with a flame indicates it is a flammable liquid.  HazMat might be chemicals in liquid, frozen, or dry form.  It also includes things like explosives, fertilizers, and pesticides.  There is even a category for radioactive material—whether it be for medical use or from areas like Hanford or military installations.  You might see these placards on all sorts of containers as well:  box trucks, flatbed trailers, and tankers in various shapes and sizes.  Our inspectors say the most common products they encounter are gasoline, propane, cylinders, and batteries.    

Perhaps one of the more notable local incidents involving HazMat occurred last July in Seattle, when a welding supply delivery truck caught fire, leading to multiple explosions

Under Revised Code of Washington 46.48, the Washington State Patrol has the authority to “adopt and enforce the regulations promulgated by the United States department of transportation.”  The WSP relies on specially trained Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Officers (CVEOs) who know how to work safely around these materials and what documentation is required. 

The training consists of 40 hours of classroom and practical training along with another 32 hours of inspection training with an instructor.  The CVEOs look at the quantity of material, how it is stored and secured, and if there are any unsafe combinations of products.  They also ensure the driver has a current Commercial Driver’s License with a HazMat and Tanker endorsement if necessary.  For drivers, this training must be renewed every three years.  The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has plenty of information for further perusing at their website.   

For all of us sharing the roads, here are a few safety tips:

  1. Consider extra following distance when you see a placarded load. 
  2. If you are involved or come upon a collision involving placarded materials or that appears to be HazMat, back up as far as safely possible. 
  3. If you can do so safely (binoculars or perhaps the zoom on your phone) see if you can find the number on the placard.  That information is helpful to first responders when you call 911.  Again, only retrieve this information if you can do so from a safe distance. 
  4. If you see anything leaking or escaping from a placarded CMV, call 911. 
  5. If you are unsure what the cargo is, do not put down road flares or smoke. 
  6. If you see the driver or other occupants down near the collision, do not approach.  There may be poisonous gases you cannot see.