By Rip Watson, Senior Reporter
This story appears in the Dec. 5 print edition of Transport Topics.
A lack of information-sharing between two Department of Transportation agencies with safety responsibilities is jeopardizing the safety of hazardous materials shipments, the head of the freight brokers’ trade association said.
The reportedly error-plagued Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration carrier registration database and the fleet record-keeping system of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration aren’t connected electronically, said Robert Voltmann, president of the Transportation Intermediaries Association.
Voltmann said users can’t rely on PHMSA’s data, which shippers and brokers need to check because they’re legally required to use hazardous materials carriers certified by that agency.
“In spite of all the national security concern about securing supply lines, hazardous materials are moving through neighborhoods, and the agency [DOT] doesn’t know who they have given licenses to and whether that data is accurate or current,” Voltmann told Transport Topics. “Industry is made to guess on its own.”
PHMSA spokeswoman Patricia Klinger in a Dec. 1 statement acknowledged that the agency’s publicly available hazardous material information “is not real-time data but rather a cumulative data report from the previous month.”
In a joint statement, the two agencies told TT that “although not publicly available at this time, PHMSA and FMCSA developed and utilize a joint registration validation process,” describing that effort as “an invaluable first step into data integration providing an efficient method for sharing information,.”
A recent FMCSA action to shut down Gunthers Transport, Hanover, Md., illustrates the situation. FMCSA shut down Gunthers on Nov. 8 because it posed an “imminent hazard” after repeated violations. Yet PHMSA still listed a valid hazardous materials registration for Gunthers on its website as late as Nov. 30.
“There is a disconnect,” said Annette Sandberg, currently the principal at TransSafe Consulting and FMCSA’s administrator from 2003 until 2006. “There are issues of the databases not talking to each other, and there is no data checking. FMCSA has the issue of how to accurately determine who is a [registered] hazardous materials carrier.
PHMSA doesn’t require a DOT [identification] number or an MC [FMCSA motor carrier] number when a carrier registers,” added Sandberg, who said inadequate funding was causing the problem. “It would help to make the database easier to search if it contained that information.”
The absence of a requirement to include those numbers makes PHMSA’s data “useless,” said Voltmann, whose group asked that agency to require that information. “FMCSA wants to put the hazardous materials information into its database, but they don’t know who [carriers] are, so they have to guess.”
If DOT or MC numbers are missing from PHMSA’s database, it’s impossible to know if the carrier actually has operating authority when brokers do computer data searches, said Jeffrey Tucker, CEO of Tucker Co. Worldwide, which offers brokerage services.
In other cases, Tucker added, computer searches can’t properly process available carrier data that is supposed to contain only numbers because it has letters as well.
He claimed that as much as 40% of PHMSA entries are inaccurate or incomplete.
While Tucker criticized PHMSA, he praised FMCSA, saying “their data is very good.” Its value results from daily updates with changes such as fleets that lost insurance or operating authority.
TIA officials met with Ryan Posten, senior director at PHMSA, in late October to express its concerns, Voltmann said, but the trade group hasn’t received any response. It’s also been rebuffed in efforts to access databases other than PHMSA’s system, which is known as Regis11Excel.
Carriers also recognize the issue.
“FMCSA and PHMSA don’t have the time or resources to focus on what they would like to do, which includes a top-notch information system,” said John Conley, president of the National Tank Truck Carriers Conference. “We really have no idea of how many companies that should be registered there are not.”
Conley said the agencies are instead “wasting their time and resources on politically motivated nonsense,” such as a proposal to ban flammable liquids from tank trailer wetlines during transport.
“The need for reliable data throughout the Department of Transportation is even more important with CSA,” Conley said, referring to the FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program that evaluates fleet safety.
Because of the data gap, Tucker added, FMCSA is forced to add weight in its CSA scoring system to hazardous materials violations. However, that increased emphasis means that carriers with such violations are penalized more heavily, Tucker added.
Conley offered some advice to brokers and shippers.
“If shippers or brokers are having a problem getting information from the Department of Transportation regarding who is a registered hazardous materials carrier, I suggest they are talking to the wrong people,” Conley said. “It is the responsibility of the shipper or broker to get this information from the carrier.”
Tucker responded that shippers and brokers often obtain hazardous materials data from carriers for their regular, or core, carriers. “But brokers and shippers still need smaller [carriers] for the remaining 10% or so of their business,” Tucker said. “They want to be able to rely on that data.
“The world we live in relies on quick data access,” he observed. “From a logical standpoint wouldn’t you think that FMCSA and PHMSA databases would talk to each other?”