On a low-visibility Monday morning in late October, nearly 170 vehicles were involved in a series of car crashes while crossing Lake Maurepas on Interstate 55 in St. John the Baptist Parish that killed seven people and injured 63. One of the vehicles was a tanker truck carrying what state troopers described as a “hazardous liquid,” which caught on fire after the crashes.
The crashes served as a reminder that the presence of hazardous chemicals can cause an accident to escalate to even higher levels of danger for everyone involved, particularly if the hazardous materials are released into the environment.
Are there common threads that tie other crashes involving hazardous materials together? To find out, we analyzed the most recent ten years of crash data (2012 through 2021) available in the National Highway Transit Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) database, identifying just under 1,400 fatal crashes where at least one vehicle involved was transporting hazardous cargo.
- 53% of the crashes in question occur in the top 10 states, all of which see major freight traffic on their highways. Texas accounted for 220 crashes, the only state in triple digits.
- Several of the counties with multiple fatal crashes involving HAZMAT transportation vehicles are either in or around U.S. population centers that sit along the country’s freight corridors, including Los Angeles and Houston.
- More fatal crashes have happened on Interstate 10 (34) than on any other road.
- Crashes are most common later in the workweek, when long-haul truck drivers are likely to be fatigued as they near the end of their schedules.
- The drivers who are involved in crashes while transporting hazardous materials are overwhelmingly male and over the age of 40.
- Alcohol and/or drugs are present in a very small number of fatal crashes involving HAZMAT transportation. Similarly, some drivers do not have the proper commercial license for the vehicles they are driving, but only a small number.
Where are fatal crashes involving vehicles transporting hazardous materials happening?
The top 10 states, which account for more than 50% of all fatal crashes involving HAZMAT transport, are largely clustered in the southern part of the country — other than California, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
All 10 also sit along the Federal Highway Administration’s network of “major freight corridors,” which means that they have stretches of highway that are traveled by at least 8,500 trucks per day.
Additionally, there are 23 counties (and one Louisiana parish) that had at least five fatal crashes involving HAZMAT transportation during the time period. Several of those counties are along the major freight corridors as well, including some of the largest population centers in the U.S.: Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Phoenix, and Tampa.
|County||Fatal crashes involving HAZMAT||Population (approx.)||Fatal crashes per 100,000 residents|
|Kern County, CA||11||918,000||1.2|
|San Bernardino County, CA||11||2.2 million||0.5|
|Los Angeles County, CA||10||9.8 million||0.1|
|Maricopa County, AZ||10||4.5 million||0.2|
|Cecil County, MD||9||104,000||8.7|
|Grady County, OK||9||56,000||16.2|
|Hillsborough County, FL||9||1.5 million||0.6|
|Cibola County, NM||7||27,000||25.8|
|Frederick County, MD||7||280,000||2.5|
|Harris County, TX||7||4.7 million||0.2|
|Karnes County, TX||7||15,000||47.4|
|Palm Beach County, FL||7||1.5 million||0.5|
|Weld County, CO||7||340,000||2.1|
|Guilford County, NC||6||542,000||1.1|
|McKenzie County, ND||6||14,000||43.4|
|Oklahoma County, OK||6||800,000||0.8|
|San Juan County, NM||6||121,000||5.0|
|West Baton Rouge Parish, LA||6||28,000||21.6|
|Blaine County, OK||5||9,000||58.4|
|Eddy County, NM||5||61,000||8.2|
|Hawaii County, HI||5||203,000||2.5|
|La Salle County, TX||5||7,000||75.0|
|Midland County, TX||5||168,000||3.0|
|Tuscaloosa County, AL||5||227,000||2.2|
Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Houston being hotspots for crashes is one of the reasons that Interstate 10, which runs through all three cities on its 2,460-mile stretch from Santa Monica to Jacksonville, saw more fatal crashes (34) and fatalities (42) than any other roadway in the U.S. Interstate 55, where the October crashes happened, was the site of four fatal crashes over the analysis period.
Interestingly, while 8 of the 10 most dangerous roads in this regard are east-west highways, neither of the longest roads in the U.S. — U.S. Highway 20 and Interstate 90, which both span from the Pacific Northwest to New England — is on the list of the deadliest roadways.
|Roadway||Fatal crashes involving HAZMAT||Total fatalities in crashes involving HAZMAT|
|U.S. Highway 50||9||11|
|U.S. Highway 70||7||11|
When are these crashes happening?
The number of crashes fluctuates month to month, with relatively higher numbers in January, May, and November and lower numbers in April, June, and July. But there are much clearer patterns when it comes to time of day and day of week.
Fatal crashes involving HAZMAT vehicles are at their lowest later at night, when overall traffic volumes are lower and trucks — the most common type of road transportation vehicle for hazardous materials — are often the main drivers on the road. They peak after the morning commute has ended, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Regardless of the time of day, drivers should be extra careful Wednesday through Friday, because late in the week is when crashes tend to spike. Drivers are finishing their schedules for the week and could be more susceptible to fatigue as the weekend approaches.
What kinds of materials are being transported?
The most common classification of hazardous material being transported on roads is flammable liquids, followed by gases and corrosive liquids. None of the other six classifications was involved in more than 100 fatal crashes during the time period we analyzed.
At least some quantity of the materials being transported wind up being released from the cargo container in about 30% of fatal crashes. Fires are more rare, happening 14% of the time.
And in nearly every case, the vehicle transporting hazardous products had the proper placards posted.
Who is driving the vehicles that get into fatal crashes?
The truck drivers in the FARS data who were transporting hazardous materials when they got into accidents were overwhelmingly male and older. All but 29 were male, and 77% were 40 or older — with nearly 1 in 5 over the age of 60 — which highlights some of the trouble that the freight industry faces as its primary workforce starts to age out.
Alcohol and drugs played a role in some of the fatal crashes involving HAZMAT, but only a small handful. Drivers were determined to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs in just 24 of the 1,381 crashes we reviewed, including two where the drivers were found to be using both alcohol and drugs.
Drivers in five fatal crashes were reported as having had previous history of driving while intoxicated, though none of those were crashes where alcohol was reported.
Some drivers also had issues with their licenses, according to the data. About 25 drivers were operating without the proper commercial driver’s license for the class of vehicle they were driving. And in eight cases, drivers either had a suspended license — or no driver’s license at all.
Data sources and methodology
Crash data comes from the National Highway Transit Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System database, which catalogs information about fatal motor vehicle crashes in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
We downloaded the full public data releases for 2012 through 2021 and used fields in each year’s “accident,” “person,” and “vehicle” tables to narrow the dataset down to the crashes in which a vehicle was transporting hazardous materials and the drivers of those vehicles.
Information about major freight corridors comes from the Federal Highway Administration.
Feel free to use the information contained in this analysis, but if you do, please link back to this page for attribution purposes.