“This is the beginning, and the dawn of a new era of transportation.” — Shervin Pishevar
On Friday evening, September 29, 2023, at about 8:40 pm, the impatient driver of an SUV decided to pass a truck hauling anhydrous ammonia. Traffic on U.S. 40 was heavier than usual due to a detour of I-70 to the south, near Effingham, Illinois. Incident investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Illinois State Police believe that the SUV driver cut off the anhydrous ammonia truck as they passed. The truck driver swerved to the right in response, ran off the road, jackknifed, and collided with a utility truck parked next to the highway. The hitch on the utility truck punched a 6” hole in the anhydrous ammonia trailer, which proceeded to release more than half of its 7,500-gallon load.
People in the immediate vicinity, in and around the village of Teutopolis, evacuated. Some people travelling through the toxic cloud of ammonia were not so lucky. Five people died, including a father and his two children. Five others, including the driver of the anhydrous ammonia truck, were airlifted to hospitals. Ambulances transported two others to hospitals in Effingham.
An Avoidable Incident
State Representative Adam Niemerg, who lives near and represents Teutopolis, expressed his belief that the incident “could have been avoided.” Safety professionals often insist that all incidents are avoidable. To prevent an incident, that is, to prevent the reoccurrence of an incident, it is essential to understand the cause of the incident and seek to reduce the likelihood of the cause. The representative, who is not a safety professional, insists that the cause of this incident was the detours around I-70. That suggests, then, that a way to reduce reoccurrences of this incident is to eliminate detours.
Not a helpful suggestion.
Investigators—local, state, and federal—do not fault the driver of the truck. When someone cut him off sharply as they travelled at highway speed, he veered to the right to avoid crashing into them. That response resulted in a crash that did not involve the reckless driver of the SUV. We can generally agree that veering away from a pending crash is a natural response, even if in hindsight with days to mull over the sequence of events, we might conclude that the driver may have avoided a crash by simply lifting his foot off the accelerator pedal and driving forward. The driver, however, only had a split second to respond, which means there was no conscious decision, only instinct. It would have taken nerves of steel and extensive simulator training for any response but veering away to be instinctive.
Where Are The Protests?
As for the real culprit, the driver of the SUV, is there anything to be done? We have developed a callous tolerance for the careless, thoughtless drivers in our midst. There is little appetite for removing them from the road. Note that State Representative Niemerg blamed the Illinois Department of Transportation for detours, rather than blaming a reckless driver who might be a constituent.
Following a pipeline leak of hazardous chemicals, or a railroad derailment that releases hazardous chemicals, we have come to expect righteous indignation and angry protests. We expect visits from the Secretary of the Department of Transportation and other political leaders. None of that happened. There were no calls for action, other than to be patient as authorities cleaned up the mess.
Nothing, despite the fact that the fatality rate associated with pipelines has been reported as 5.2 fatalities per trillion barrel-miles, with rail shipments as 15 fatalities per trillion barrel-miles, and truck shipments of hazardous chemicals at over 80 fatalities per trillion barrel-miles.
Do Something Different
The answer is not to shrug and accept fatal exposures on the highway as the price of living in a modern society. Nor is the answer to ban all shipments of hazardous chemicals; we need them. We cannot keep doing the same things and expect different results. So, if we want to reduce the number of fatalities associated with the roadway transport of hazardous chemicals, we need to do something different.
An idea that is gaining traction beyond the realm of science fiction is that of autonomous vehicles (AVs). While the media tend to focus on self-driving passenger vehicles, there is also enormous potential for autonomous freight trucking. According to the Manhattan Institute, “autonomous driving systems use sensors to collect data on their surroundings and use artificial intelligence to direct vehicle movements.” Along with sensors to detect physical conditions and active signals from roadways and other vehicles, trucks hauling hazardous chemicals could take advantage of sensors that detect the condition of their load. The final control elements would be the same that we already expect—steering, braking, acceleration, and the warning indications that go with each of those.
The advantages of using AI instead of human drivers is that AI uses a decision-making process, rather than instinct, and that AI can be “trained on more data than any human could ever internalize because all the [vehicles] in a given system can share data from all the roadway scenarios that they have.” In other words, every AV will have the world’s most experienced driver.
Why hasn’t this happened already? Certainly, there is status quo bias, our preference for what is familiar, no matter how faulty, over something new. The best way to overcome our personal status quo bias is to learn as much as we can. But more importantly, these biases extend to the regulators and lawmakers that set public policy. As Niccolò Machiavelli said, “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”
Don’t be a lukewarm defender. Let the people making public policy know that you support the increased road safety that will come with having AVs haul hazardous cargos.
 Baldas, Ashtyn, The Crude Truth: Assessing the Associated Risks of Rail, Tanker, and Pipeline Crude Oil Transport, ASME Safety Engineering and Risk Analysis, May 2014.