Post Office Fiddles While Its Mail Trucks Burn

October 21, 2019 by Jerry Hirsch, @Jerryhirsch

Mail trucks are burning at an alarming rate, and the only people who seem to think it’s a problem are the letter carriers who must drive the aging vehicles.

Twenty-six of the U.S. Postal Service’s aging Grumman LLV delivery trucks have caught fire so far this year, according to a tally by Postal Times. That makes 145 since 2014. If the mail truck were a vehicle model that consumers purchased from a dealer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would have long ago launched an investigation and issued a recall.

But neither the NHTSA nor auto safety groups are addressing this safety issue with the same attention they would if fires were burning up Ford pickup trucks or Toyota sedans. Trucks.com has followed this problem for several years, and we hear the same sad statement from letter carriers: It will take a death or severe injury to force the Postal Service to act.

NO COMMENT

In a statement to Trucks.com, the agency said, “The safety of our employees is a matter of great importance to the Postal Service.” But it didn’t comment on the fires or provide any specifics on how it is addressing the problem.

“The Postal Service has implemented mandated maintenance schedules and fine-tuned repair and maintenance procedures for the existing Postal Service vehicle fleet, including LLVs, with the goal of making sure vehicles used by postal employees are safe to operate before they are put into use on a daily basis,” the agency said.

Yet the fires continue.

Although it is a frequent target for criticism, the Postal Service does a good job delivering mail and parcels at a decent pace. But the USPS is glacial when it comes to tackling its problems and adopting new technology.

The Grumman LLV proves this point. Manufactured from 1987 through 1994, the trucks should have been replaced a decade ago. The vehicle is a custom body manufactured by Grumman mounted on a Chevrolet truck chassis the automaker stopped making ages ago.

PLANS

The Postal Service operates about 141,000 right-hand-drive LLVs. They make up about 62 percent of its fleet. The agency plans to replace them with new trucks and has tested multiple prototypes from five teams. But it keeps delaying a decision on what vehicles to purchase. The agency now says that it plans to finally award the contract, worth more than $6 billion next year. The Postal Service also told Trucks.com it might split assembly of 186,000 next-generation daily mail trucks among several of the four company teams competing for the contract.

Let’s compare this to Amazon, which also knows a thing or two about delivering stuff to people’s doorsteps. The e-commerce giant decided earlier this year that it wanted a green delivery fleet. Amazon announced in September that it would purchase 100,000 Rivian electric delivery vans trucks that will start service as early as 2021. The giant retailer plans to have 10,000 of the new electric vehicles on the road as early as 2022. The rest of the trucks will go into service as Rivian delivers them.

rivian-electric-truck amazon

Amazon has said it will purchase 100,000 Rivian electric delivery vans.

Keep in mind that Rivian is a startup. It will base the vans on the electric pickup truck architecture that it has prototyped and plans to sell as a consumer vehicle. But the giant Amazon order, as well as significant investments in Rivian by the retailer and by Ford Motor Co., pretty much assure the vans will go into production.

If Amazon can get an advanced technology delivery van into service in just a couple of years, the Postal Service should be able to do the same in no more than three or four years. Mail trucks burning up, destroying mail and threatening injury and property damage should be enough incentive.

POTENTIAL LIABILITY

The Postal Service should also take a look at what happens when organizations doddle with safety improvements. PG&E, the California electricity provider, is a good example. The utility failed to upgrade its wires and equipment so that it could control sparking during periods of hot, windy and dry weather. One of its transmission lines is suspected of sparking a wildfire that killed 85 people in 2018. The utility filed for bankruptcy after facing at least $30 billion in claims from multiple wildfires.

WHAT IF …

Imagine what would happen to the Postal Service if one of its aging LLVs caught fire while on a mail route in hilly California under similar weather conditions. Such a fire could burn tens of thousands of acres, destroy homes and other buildings and kill people. The agency couldn’t argue it was just a freak accident. Already nearly 150 of its trucks have burned. The problem is well documented. Just think what a jury might do in the penalty phase of a civil trial.

Jason Levine, who heads the Center for Auto Safety, told Trucks.com that the Postal Service should take action – and quickly.

“This is not a place to be pennywise and pound foolish,” Levine said.

mail truck fire somers NY

A mail truck burns near a wooded area in Somers, N.Y., on April 8. (Photo: Jonathan Jusino)

His organization would file a petition seeking an investigation with the NHTSA if the LLV were a passenger car. But so far, it has not done so. The Center for Auto Safety acts on complaints filed by consumers with the NHTSA. That’s how it gets data to support its arguments. People who drive for fleets, such as letter carriers, rarely file complaints about their vehicles with the government. They figure they don’t own them, so who cares. Or employees fear complaints will endanger their employment.

“It makes it difficult to gather the statistical database case that we would normally use to put together a defect investigation,” Levine said.

TAKING ACTION

But, Levine said, something must be done.

Letter carriers should start filing complaints with the NHTSA every time there is an LLV fire or safety issue. They can do so here. They should also contact the Center for Auto Safety. That will produce the data need to force federal safety officials and the Postal Service to act.

“Waiting for them to be replaced over the next five to 10 years is not a solution,” Levine said.

Editor’s note: Trucks.com welcomes divergent thoughts and opinions on transport technology and trucking industry issues. Use the comments section to cite yours. Qualified opinion leaders are welcome to offer suggestions for opinion columns. Contact info@trucks.com.

Cyndia Zwahlen January 29, 2019
National labor union for letter carriers issues a new warning about the increasing threat of mail truck fires in aging fleet tagged for replacement by Postal Service.

26 Responses

  1. Sandy

    Yeah at a Post Office in Mi. The postmaster wanted to take our first-aid box away. They were worried about the ointments expiring and they would get sued. What a joke and care nothing about the fires,nor the heat these trucks put out in the summer. They send us messages on our scanner to take in more water or go somewhere to cool off. Then you get in trouble for taking an extra break. That a sad company they are….they get their bonuses at the end of the year though.

    Reply
    • linda

      I retired last year and have no regrets……they don’t care about the employees, only their numbers. It’s true, they pretend to be concerned about us walking in the heat and tell us to take extra breaks. You come back a little later and you get hell for it…such hypocrites!!!!

      Reply
    • roger

      Why don’t they put small fire extinguishers in the LLVs. You can get Tundra extinguishers from Amazon for $12.

      Reply
      • jack

        half of the hoods dont even open because the hood release cables dont get replaced during service. they do the bare minimum tokeep them running

  2. Jessica

    Postal Service could care less about their employees, I know, I work for them and I am a letter carrier. These trucks have a lot of things wrong with them and myrtle beach post office currently has no mechanic to fix any of the problems, just a contract guy over 70 who barely fixes any problems.

    Reply
  3. Kristen

    In order to file a complaint one must enter the VIN. Is there a VIN on LLV’s

    Reply
  4. Linda

    I work for usps. I wonder all the time if our safety is a concern and there is a record of these vehicles catching on fire then why hasn’t anyone installed fire extinguishers on these trucks? I understand getting new tricks take time and money. We have to continue to deliver the mail so in the meantime why hasn’t anyone came forward to install extinguishers and train employees on the use of these. Just wondering.

    Reply
  5. Jessica

    Along with the fires, my employees are being poisoned by carbon monoxide….some hospitalized and some remain sick for quite some time. They have tried to request it to be fixed and it’s very temporarily patched. It’s going to take a death (if there hasn’t been one already but family couldn’t afford autopsy) to even start the conversation. It’s really pitiful what carriers have to go through with those tin box hazards. I am a carrier but drive my own vehicle (not much better because you simply can’t buy them anymore; jeep pulled production and no one else wants to step up to the plate).

    Reply
    • Bryan

      Fires are nothing compared to how unsafe they were when they were brand new, let alone now over 25 years old. It shows just how professional USPS carriers are that more aren’t killed in these trucks. Designed and built with late 70’s technology by the lowest bidder. I bet the Pinto was a safer vehicle than these.

      Reply
  6. Daniel Berend

    Is there a cause, official or otherwise for the fires? It’s possible that the contents of the mail could be to blame for some of them.

    Reply
    • Tonya Sturek

      From the ones I have witnessed in my area, it starts under hood. Electrical, the wires protective coating possibly deteriorated and crossed, causing a spark. Both LLV’s here had been written up multiple times for issues just prior to it happening as well

      Reply
  7. Anita Nellums

    As an USPS employee we were given a safety talk that addressed this point. It was mentioned that are Vehicles do not catch fire as often as one driven by the public. I called BS and was quickly told I was out of line.

    Reply
  8. Kevin

    The contract probably hasn’t been awarded because the Postmaster General is a political appointee. The other wildcard is Congress. They can, have, and will again, come for any surpluses in USPS funds. Congress can also impose another crazy requirement such as the funding of medical and retirement benefits for employees not yet born. I’m sure the USPS would be much more efficient without political meddling.

    Reply
  9. Pryme Tyme

    The post office doesn’t care about the safety of its carriers. All they care about is getting the mail out and how long is it gonna take us to get back in the office. If a truck catches on fire while working, they would probably just find you another truck. Brush the ashes and soot off of the mail that didn’t burn up, and tell you to get it delivered. And you better be back in this office before 6pm! That’s how they do things at my station in OH.

    Reply
  10. Yo mama

    The post office can’t afford to pay for new trucks immediately. Do you want mail service to just halt for the next 5 years while they roll out a new fleet? Fuck off.

    Reply
    • Oh Man Dhu

      Here we have an example of the problem. This guy shows the typical attitude from management. (He’s probably postal management or an employee pretending to be management to show the reader what we deal with every single everlovin’ day.)

      Reply
  11. Don

    A truck caught fire here in Florida and when the carrier called in, the supervisor was more concerned with them getting the Amazon packages(it was a Sunday) out of the truck than the carriers safety. Being a newer employee the carrier attempted to retrieve the packages and then had to be hospitalized for smoke inhalation. My truck leaks almost as though there is no front window when it rains. the water runs down near the fuse box like a river. It has been written up for this issue multiple times, but the windshield still has not been replaced. My feet get soaking wet even if I don’t have to get out of the truck.

    Reply
  12. Sodone

    I too, work at the PO in Colorado. Some of the trucks haven’t had a tune up in 2+ years. They constantly stall, spit and sputter and then you smell the fuel. They won’t put them in the shop because they can’t get any loaner trucks from their division. What a joke. No wonder they can’t keep carriers. Overworked, under paid and treated like crap. SEE YA!

    Reply
  13. John Ziesmann

    I think the main problem isn’t necessarily the trucks, but how they are used. Delivering mail is a lot of stop-and-go, a lot of idling, and a lot of putting around. That builds up a lot of carbon in the exhaust. When it builds up enough, it can catch fire and burn quite violently. A solution would be to make sure all the trucks get a little highway time every week to burn out those deposits before they become a problem. Do this by either switching up delivery routes, (bad idea making drivers learn extra routes), or having drivers use a different vehicle once a week, while the poor out of town guys gotta drive a different truck every day so all the trucks get rotated through a little highway time. There are probably other solutions as well.

    Reply
  14. Kathryn

    The USPS took away my POV and gave me a LLV. I requested the brakes be fixed and requested they be fixed properly. Now I no longer have a job. USPS took vehicles that run a few minutes a day and placed them on rural routes where they run several hours continuious and they wonder why they are burning. Is this really rockret science

    Reply
  15. Dave

    Is this burning due to the truck engines or due to lithium batteries in the mail carried on board?

    Reply
  16. Francisco Moreno

    I was involved in a llv fire incident about 5 years ago. The vehicle was a complete loss. They brought in a outside company who investigated the accident. There was never a internal investigation. The gentleman said he was going around the country investigating these fires. I am so thankful that I am alive due to a customer warning. I didn’t realize my vehicle was on fire. The flames were underneath the vehicle and I could not see any smoke. Never found out why it caught on fire. I moved to a different route where I drive a promaster now.

    Reply
  17. Randy

    Typical government organization. You can’t run it like a real business because of the politicians and the bureaucrats. A smart plan would have scheduled these vehicles to be replaced along time ago but I’m sure the idiots in Washington wouldn’t provide steady funding for a scheduled replacement. You need to replace some of your fleet on an annual basis. You don’t buy 150,000 trucks over 5-10 years and then sit back for 20-30 years to do it again.

    Reply
  18. VW nut

    As a former carrier, vehicle maint tech, and now veh maint manager, I can attest to the challenge of maintaining a 30yr old fleet. Yes, the vehicles are hot; nothing new there. I carried mail for 8yrs and worked on them as a tech for 3yrs (in FL). The Jeeps before them were also hot….as were the vehicles before them and the ones before them and so on dating all the way back to the Pony Express. At least now USPS PROVIDES BOTTLED WATER TO ALL OUTSIDE EMPLOYEES (there is a pallet full in my facility right now – that wasn’t happening 8yrs ago when I carried). The vehicles in my area are maintained well. Yes, breakdowns happen. New vehicles under warranty sometimes fail too. It’s actually quite impressive to have over 100k 30yr old vehicles on the road 6-7 days a week when you think about it. It isn’t cheap either. I know SOME carriers (typically the ones that choose to be vocal) believe USPS doesn’t care, but the national average that goes into an LLV is $2700/yr in maintenance. We do care and we are striving to keep the fleet as reliable and safe as possible. After all, it isn’t smart business sense to have breakdowns that delay mail and cost overtime. The fires are investigated by an outside firm bc USPS truly does want a handle on this. I have seen 3 in our area over last 8yrs and it doesn’t seem tied to one particular reason. One where transmission fluid leaked on a catalytic converter that ignited, one fuel, and one electrical wiring. All we can do is maintain them as best as possible. ALL mechanical devices can and do fail – there is proof in the world’s best engineered and funded projects (planes, spaceships, bridges, etc). Developing a next-gen vehicle is challenging and expensive. It will take years to roll out (LLVs spanned 8yrs). No doubt Amazon has impressive resources. “Their fleet” is majority owner operated though (contractors), so not quite the same apples-to-apples comparison. A full electric USPS fleet would require new infrastructure at 1000s of post offices; not likely feasible. USPS HAS AND CONTINUES to deploy tens of thousands (and likely hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars worth) of new vehicles since 2015. Promasters, Tradesmans, new yard spotters, 11-ton box trucks, tractors, 2-tons, maint vehicles, etc. Conveniently overlooked though in the majority of these posts….

    Reply

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