By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/26/2004 6:49:36 PM ET 2004-03-26T23:49:36

A section of Interstate 95, the main traffic artery between New York and Boston, could be shut for at least two weeks after a fiery tanker truck wreck melted a bridge. But this tanker was only one example of the large amount of dangerous cargo that travels on American roads every day.

Police said a car apparently cut off the tanker truck.  It hit a concrete barrier.  The inferno that followed was so hot it melted a bridge in downtown Bridgeport, Conn.  Interstate 95 will be closed for days — maybe weeks in one direction, disrupting traffic and commerce in the northeast, and costing more than 11 million dollars to repair.

Hazardous material is on the move all around us.  On average, 1.2 million shipments crisscross America each day, by rail and truck and there more than 400 serious accidents each year.

Just two months ago a tanker truck plunged off an overpass onto an interstate in Howard County, Maryland, in a fireball that killed four.

Three years ago, hazardous chemicals blazed after a derailment in a rail tunnel under Baltimore, paralyzing the city and threatening to collapse streets above.

Just what is en route?  There’s a lot of concern about low-level nuclear waste, the most heavily regulated, though there’s never been a serious accident.  Toxic chemicals are shipped as well.

But over 95 percent of the accidents involve fuel trucks, which have a particular problem, says Jerry Donaldson, an advocate for truck safety, “They have about five times the rollover rate than any truck on the road and when you have a fatal rollover crash almost one out of two of those crashes result in a death.”

Why are fuel trucks more apt to rollover?  It’s because the higher the tank is filled with fuel, the more top-heavy the truck becomes.  And when the truck turns, there’s sloshing to one side, making it even more difficult to control.

Some have recommended double-lining fuel trucks, but that’s been rejected as too costly.

Some advocate smaller loads, but that would put even more trucks on the road, to make up for lost capacity.

Alan Roberts, president of the Dangerous Goods Advisory Council and formerly the federal government’s chief hazardous materials regulator for 25 years, talks of the dilemma, “Whether it be the plastics in our automobiles, or the gasoline in the tank, these are all things that we need to maintain our way of life.”

He feels there have been remarkable improvements, for example, rail cars have been greatly strengthened and some attention has been paid to trucks as well.

“It’s one of the safest systems we have in the United States,” Roberts added

But, when things go wrong, as they have in Bridgeport, Connecticut the results can be devastating.

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