Tolling to increase hazmat risk?
It’s clear that the public at large is opposed to e-tolling – for obvious reasons … But as defensive driving specialist and long-time tolling opponent, Rob Handfield-Jones warns, the rabbit hole is far deeper than anticipated.
He says that the South African National Roads Agency’s (Sanral’s) tolling of the Gauteng freeways will increase the number of vehicles carrying hazardous materials (hazmat) passing through residential areas. The reason being: operators want to avoid tolled roads.
Handfield-Jones points out that one of the world’s greatest hazmat vehicle disasters involved a tanker truck using an alternative route to avoid a tolled road. “The Los Alfaques disaster, in Spain, was an appalling tragedy in the late 1970s in which hundreds of people were burned to death,” he sadly relates. “The driver of a tanker truck carrying flammable liquid had been instructed by his employer to use a rural route to avoid motorway tolls.”
The driver lost control of the vehicle next to the Los Alfaques camping ground, on the east coast of Spain, and crashed. The tanker broke open, causing flammable gas to escape into the air and ignite. More than 200 people died and over 200 were severely injured.
Handfield-Jones further explains that if the disaster had occurred on the open motorway, the death toll would most likely have been a fraction of what it was.
“South African transport operators have a history of using alternative routes to cut out tolling costs,” says Handfield-Jones, “despite Sanral’s stance that using better-quality toll roads is beneficial to operators because such roads cause less vehicle damage.”
He adds: “The problem is that vehicle repair costs can be deferred, but tolls can’t, which is why some operators prefer to avoid tolled roads and run death-trap vehicles – that are unlikely to be detected because of inadequate enforcement.”
Handfield-Jones says that avoiding tolled routes is the same as overloading: “It damages the vehicle, but it increases cash flow, and when times get tougher, cash flow is a very valuable thing to an operator … I absolutely believe that the Gauteng toll roads will drive hazmat vehicles into the suburbs.”
He expresses the view that a minimal number of vehicles carrying hazardous cargo into the suburbs are acceptable when they’re delivering fuel to filling stations, but that further vehicle volumes would be a needless risk. And adds that if hazmat vehicles are encouraged to remain on freeways their risk of crashing lowers, and there is a greater separation between them and the population.
“Even in cases where freeways pass through built-up areas,” he says. “Which is preferable: a burning tanker 100 metres away on a freeway or ten metres from a block of flats?
“Tolling urban freeways is inevitably going to drive heavy vehicles and hazardous cargoes into our suburbs.”