Mail trucks are bursting into flames at a rate that would trigger a massive recall if they were passenger vehicles.
More than 120 fires have occurred in the past five years, including 12 in the first four months of this year. News and social media photos show the trucks burning intensely, often inches away from trees, cars and, in one case, a gasoline pump in Connecticut.
The incidents of mail trucks fires are on pace this year to double the number that occurred last year. At least one injury, a letter carrier burning his hand, is linked to the fires.
But the U.S. Postal Service keeps operating its fleet of 140,000 custom-made Grumman Long Life Vehicles. It declined to answer Trucks.com requests for information about the causes of the fires and its actions to remedy the problem. The average age of the trucks is now 27.5 years.
CONCERN FOR PUBLIC SAFETY
Safety advocates say the ongoing conflagrations are an increasing public safety hazard.
“You are not going to have this many fires and not ultimately get to a tragedy,” said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies Inc.
The fires erupt when the trucks are being operated as intended rather than being triggered by a crash. That’s a concern, said safety experts.
“Non-crash fires are serious and rare and should always be taken seriously,” said Jason Levine, executive director at the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer-advocacy group.
When a non-crash fire erupts in a consumer truck or car, it can trigger a series of steps that can lead to an eventual manufacturer recall of thousands of vehicles. Fires in the Postal Service’s light-duty mail trucks don’t set off the same series of events or outside scrutiny.
Some manufacturers of passenger vehicles will take action after far fewer reported incidents.
Earlier this month, General Motors Co. recalled more than 300,000 GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks with diesel engines following 19 reports of engine block heater cord fires. It also is holding tens of thousands of unsold trucks at dealerships. No injuries or crashes have been linked to the fires, GM said.
The Postal Service hired an engineering firm in 2014 to investigate the cause of the fires. When no single reason was discovered, the agency increased efforts to stick to mandated maintenance schedules and fine-tune repair and maintenance procedures, according to agency memos.
The Postal Service declined to comment on the potential public safety hazard posed by the fires. It also declined to say how many fires have occurred. And it declined to comment on whether it has discussed the fires with Morgan Olson LLC, a successor company to the original manufacturer.
“The safety of our employees is a matter of great importance to the Postal Service,” said Kim Frum, an agency spokesperson, in an email. All vehicles purchased by the Postal Service have to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, whether off-the shelf vehicles or purpose-built vehicles, Frum said.
Morgan Olson did not reply to a request for comment.
The Postal Service is adding off-the-shelf commercial vehicles to its delivery fleet. But most of these new vans and trucks are not meant for daily mail delivery routes in cities and suburbs.
The agency has known about the problem for years.
In 2016, the Postal Service issued a memo to fleet maintenance and fleet management entitled “Potential Causes of Vehicle Fires.” The memo said its purpose was “to place emphasis on maintenance procedures that may prevent a vehicle fire to eliminate potential injury to the vehicle occupant(s), the loss of equipment and possible damage or loss of our customer’s mail.”
The mail truck fires typically start in the engine area, reports show. The high heat eventually melts much of the aluminum body.
Fires in mail trucks can pose extra dangers compared with fires in consumer vehicles, according to fire experts. They can burn more intensely because they are packed with flammable mail. And materials in the cargo could explode or release toxic gas.
‘ADDED LEVEL OF RISK’
“There is an added level of risk … based on the amount of combustible materials they carry and the unknown of what could potentially be in the cargo,” said Jonathan Mackey, assistant fire chief, Somers Volunteer Fire Department in Somers, N.Y.
While the agency has plans to replace its daily mail trucks, the new vehicles are not likely to arrive before 2021, the Postal Service chief said in a congressional hearing in April.
Mail truck fires are not subject to the same process as consumer vehicle fires.
Once a manufacturer knows about fires erupting in its vehicles, it has to report the information to federal safety regulators, specifically the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHSTA), according to consumer-safety advocates. The agency keeps public databases of consumer complaints it receives.
Consumer-safety groups play a role in recalls, too. Hyundai and Kia, related South Korean automakers, are investigating non-crash fires in some of their vehicles. The investigation was urged by Levine’s safety group, which uses NHTSA data in its work. NHTSA has reports of 103 injuries and one death due to non-crash fires in certain Hyundai and Kia cars.
The insurance industry also can have a part in vehicle recalls, said safety advocates. Insurers track claims and can be a source of information for investigators.
The mail carriers don’t own the LLVs. If there is a fire in a mail truck, the carrier doesn’t have a financial incentive to report the fire. They get another truck to drive.
And insurance companies are not involved in non-crash mail truck fires. Mail trucks are federal property and, said safety advocates, are not usually privately insured.
Consumer-safety groups have not been involved. The fires are little known outside the Postal Service. In part that’s because federal safety regulators don’t become involved unless they hear consumer complaints about a vehicle.
RECENT MAIL TRUCK FIRES
The Postal Service does not release the number of mail trucks that have caught fire. But a review of public reports shows the 12 so far this year have occurred in 11 states.
Here is a look at a handful of those fires:
April 8: Somers, N.Y. A mail truck burst into flames in a wooded area, and the carrier suffered a minor burn to his hand saving the mail, according to a report in TAPinto Somers.
March 18: Roswell, N.M. A mail truck erupted into fire while on its delivery route on South Michigan Avenue, according to a news item posted by the local Fire Department.
Feb. 27: North Haven, Conn. A mail truck caught fire next to a gas pump at a Mobile station on Washington Avenue, according to a Record-Journal news story.
Jan. 22: Marlborough, Mass. A mail truck burned up in the driveway of a home on Sudbury Street, with burnt mail scattered on the pavement, according to a local television news report. The owners reportedly were not home.
Jan. 4: Dunstable, Mass. A mail truck and its contents were destroyed by intense flames while in a driveway on Hall Street, according to a post by the local Fire Department. Video by the homeowner records what appears to be the sound of the truck’s windows exploding due to the fire’s heat.
Letter carriers are concerned about the fires.
“Maybe it’ll open up their eyes and (they’ll) see it’s not safe driving in those trucks from the 80s,” said Jonathan Jusino, the mail carrier in Somers, N.Y., whose mail truck caught fire in April.
The National Association of Letter Carriers told its members in January that as the LLVs continue to age, the threat of vehicle fires and the risk to letter carriers increases.
With new, replacement mail trucks still years away, the threat of fires in the old LLVs to public safety builds, said safety advocates.
“It always takes a body count as sad,” Kane said. “It takes something horrible to get anybody to act.”