When you hear the words “mail truck,” do you imagine a boxy, white-and-blue vehicle with a steering wheel on its right side? Probably.
Do you picture it engulfed in flames? Probably not.
That image has become common in recent years, though — to a shocking degree. A new investigation by Motherboard, Vice’s long-form investigative enterprise, details the alarming trend, in which more than 400 U.S. Postal Service delivery trucks have been damaged or destroyed by fires since May 2014. That means on average, a USPS delivery truck is catching fire every five days.
Reporter Aaron Gordon broke the story after he and Motherboard obtained nearly 4,000 pages of fire investigation report documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.
According to a tweet posted by Gordon on Tuesday, it all began with a handwritten letter he received eight months ago, which contained just one sentence: “File a FOIA with USPS for LLV truck fires.”
LLV trucks are the USPS’s Long Life Vehicles — the recognizable delivery trucks that have become synonymous with the Postal Service. These LLVs were purchased between 1987 and 1994, and each vehicle was manufactured to last for an average of 24 years, according to a 2015 USPS presentation.
“That means the LLVs still in service range from 26 to 33 years old, well past their useful lives,” Gordon reported, adding that the USPS currently claims to have more than 141,000 LLV vehicles in its fleet.
According to the 3,954-page fire investigation report, 125 of these 407 LLV fires were so thorough that investigators couldn’t even determine a probable fire cause.
“Of the remaining 282 fires where investigators could identify a likely cause, the only pattern was that there was no pattern,” Gordon wrote. “The fires occurred in hot and cold climates, at the beginning and ends of shifts, in the battery compartments, dashboards, and fuel pumps, and in vehicles that had both been recently maintained and were overdue for a check-up. They occurred on rural routes and city streets all over the country.”
If these old trucks are catching fire with such frequency, why is the USPS still using them? It’s because of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which Congress passed in 2006. Under the law, the USPS is required to set aside $72 billion to cover health care for its current and future employees for the next 75 years. No other federal agency or private corporation has to meet this lengthy standard, according to the Institute for Policy Studies.
The heavy financial burden imposed by this act, Gordon noted, has put the USPS’s debt in the billions of dollars. Without the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, the USPS would have actually turned a profit over the past six years — and it would have the funds to replace its increasingly flammable delivery fleet.
As early as 2011, the USPS organized plans to replace all its old LLVs. This plan was supposed to ramp up in 2017 and 2018, but “the USPS has yet to even decide on a vehicle,” Gordon reported. A USPS spokesperson told Gordon the USPS expects to choose a vehicle by the end of this year.