Hazardous Cargoes

October 4, 1974

Report Outline
Concern Over Transportation Danger
Federal Role in Regulating Shipments
Proposals for Stricter Safety Controls
Special Focus

Concern Over Transportation Danger

Transpoetation of hazardous cargoes by air, sea, rail, road and waterway is a major and growing problem in the United States. Many airline passengers have been astonished and angered to learn that radioactive or other hazardous materials are routinely carried on U.S. passenger flights. The burgeoning shipments of oil and liquid natural gas aboard tankers and supertankers have spurred new concern about spills or explosions at sea or in port. Railroads are carrying an increasing share of dangerous materials, yet rail accidents reached a 16-year high in 1973, due largely to deteriorating tracks and equipment. About one out of every 10 trucks on the highway today is transporting explosive, flammable or poisonous cargo. And hazardous substances make up an ever-larger percentage of cargo aboard boats and barges in the nation's navigable waterways, where accident rates are rising.

Such unsettling trends have given rise to public anxiety about the possibility of a catastrophic accident. In a report to Congress in May 1973, the General Accounting Office said: “Hazardous materials shipments present an increasing danger to public safety. Each year, hundreds of new materials are developed, thousands of shipments are made daily, and annual volume [carried by all modes of transportation] is expected to reach 1.5 billion tons by 1980.” However, no one seems to know exactly how much hazardous cargo is shipped in the United States annually. Two billion tons per year is the estimate of William J. Burns, director of the Office of Hazardous Materials in the Department of Transportation.

Some observers believe a major accident is virtually inevitable, given the right combination of cargo quantity, population density, weather conditions and safety measures—or lack thereof. “Hazards exist wherever dangerous cargoes are transported, whether by road, rail, air or water,” Eric Albone and Julian McCaull wrote in Environment magazine in December 1970. “Whatever the mode of transport, disaster will arise from time to time wherever hazardous materials are concerned, whether from pure error or from negligence….”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Air Safety and Security
Hazardous Substances and Nuclear Waste
Motor Traffic Safety
Waterways and Harbors