Shipments of security-sensitive material—which include missiles, ammunition, explosives and weapons—travel across the United States every day. In Fiscal Year 2014 alone, the Department of Defense (DOD) facilitated the transportation of nearly 50,000 separate shipments of security sensitive materials via commercial motor carriers.
While a catastrophic transportation incident may be unlikely, the effects of sensitive shipments being compromised could be devastating for transportation workers, emergency responders, and the general public. DOD utilizes Department of Transportation (DOT) safety performance data to assess whether or not the carriers they use can properly transport security sensitive material in accordance with the Transportation Protective Service (TPS) program.
But according to a recent audit report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), DOT safety performance information does not fully result in sufficient and reliable data to evaluate the safety performance of individual commercial motor carriers that transport security-sensitive materials under the TPS program.
DOT consolidates data from roadside inspections, crash investigation, and other sources to designate carriers overall Safety Ratings and relative Safety Measurement System (SMS) scores. SMS scores note safety performance in various areas, including hazardous materials compliance and vehicle maintenance, and can range from 0-100; 0 indicating the best relative safety performance, and 100 being the worst.
GAO explained that, “From November 2012 through October 2014, DOD maintained TPS carriers with absent or dated DOT Safety Ratings. However, DOD conducts its own inspections of TPS carriers, which partially compensates for this issue.”
DOD officials shared with GAO that all inspected carriers passed. In early 2014, GAO released findings revealing that SMS scores for some commercial carriers may not be as reliable as previously thought. This was due in part to the fact that they were based upon insufficient information, such infrequence inspections.
Though DOT did not agree with the GAO’s recommendation to revise their review procedure to assess SMS scores, DOT did state that it would aim to better enhance the program already in place.
Current assessments reveal similar findings. GAO determined DOD is not well-positioned to effectively evaluate the carriers it entrusts to transport security-sensitive material by failing to fully utilize publicly available violation data, such as violations related to a driver’s use of controlled substances while transporting hazardous materials, to evaluate TPS carriers.
Consequently, GAO asserted DOD could improve the effective evaluation of carriers transporting security-sensitive material by updating TPS program guidance to (1) address actions to take when absent or dated safety ratings and poor safety scores exist and (2) document specific consequences to be enforced when carriers do not meet program requirements, and (3) require reviews of available violation data.
The investigators also found that DOD does not evaluate the data to determine whether systemic trends and patterns are linked to safety risks and does not fully investigate incidents to determine root causes.
For example, GAO’s examination of 749 mechanical breakdown incident, including fiscal years 2011-2014 assessed that 98 percent of TPS carriers who experienced a mechanic breakdown while moving high risk materials, which include for example stinger missiles and grenades, stopped for more than 2 hours. Although there are instances when DOD may further investigate, full investigations are often not conducted, since there lacks department-wide guidance to fulfill a proper and comprehensive investigation of commercial carriers hauling security sensitive materials.
“Without department-wide guidance requiring the evaluation of TPS incident data to identify trends and the investigation of incidents including determination of the root causes, it will be difficult for DOD to consistently and effectively identify safety risks that could help reduce future incidents,” GAO stated.
GAO recommendations included that DOD establish an approach for reviewing available safety violation data, and develop guidance on analyzing incident trends and fully investigating incidents.
“The probability that a major mishap, such as an accident, will occur in the near future that involves a shipment of security-sensitive materials such as ammunitions and explosives is unknown,” GAO concluded. “However, the effects could be devastating as the release of hazardous or security-sensitive material could result in damage to DOD materials or infrastructure as well as major injuries or fatalities that could cost DOD billions of dollars.”
DOD agreed with the recommendation pertaining to enhanced guidance and incident investigation, but disagreed with the recommendation on safety violation data. DOD said this was because “it does not own the data, the data do not distinguish TPS from non-TPS shipments, and research is needed on other data.”
GAO maintained the validity of its recommendations.