In tests on the M62 near Manchester last month more than 60 per cent of the tankers and vans stopped had defects. The Health and Safety Executive calculate that up to two- thirds of all hazardous substances are transported through this region.
The police fear the problem is getting worse as unscrupulous haulage operators, fighting to survive the recession, cut costs and ignore safety procedures.
The majority of faults found by health and safety officers and the police are considered to be relatively minor, such as unqualified drivers, incorrect labelling of dangerous goods and failure to have documents about the cargo. Others are more serious. They include: corroded and faulty equipment which has resulted in chemicals escaping or leaking on to the motorway, dangerously stored goods, and failure to carry fire-fighting equipment.
Earlier this year a military tanker was found leaking helicopter fuel on to the hard shoulder of the M62 between Manchester and Warrington. At about the same time a police officer and a driver were taken to hospital after they were overcome by fumes from chemicals leaking from a vehicle travelling on the M602, Greater Manchester.
Hazardous substances that are transported by road include chlorine and ammonia, which produce poisonous gas when exposed to air; toxic materials such as arsenic and cyanide; hydrochloric acid which can cause severe burns; and wastes from chemical plants. Petrol and liquid gas are among the most common dangerous goods.
About three weeks ago checks were made at two sites, near Rochdale and Eccles on the M62 which links Hull to Manchester. Forty-seven of the 74 vehicles inspected registered offences. Of these, 23 were in connection with not carrying safety equipment or labelling - seven failed to display orange hazardous warning plates. Three were prevented from moving further. One was carrying 23 tons of ammonium nitrate, which is used in explosives, but failed to have a fire extinguisher.
An HSE spokesman said: 'I'm disgusted that despite all our efforts the regulations and public safety are being so blatantly ignored by a number of operators in the North-west.'
Chief Inspector Neil Longsden, of Greater Manchester Police's motorway group, said: 'Dangerous goods that are not labelled or properly identified put the lives of firemen and motorists at risk.
'The large operators are extremely responsible, but at the bottom end of the market some cut costs by reducing maintenance, and ignoring safety and training. They are cutting corners left, right and centre.'
In November last year at Bradford magistrates court, F T Morrell, a haulage firm, and New Plan Furniture, a furniture manufacturer, were both fined pounds 2,050, with pounds 300 costs, after an unventilated van was stopped on the M62 and found to contain several open drums with highly inflammable solvents inside. The police reported vapour 'pouring' out of the back of the closed van.
At Bury magistrates in February, Fragrant Oils International, of Radcliffe, Greater Manchester, was fined pounds 400 for operating a vehicle without a trained driver, a fire extinguisher, orange cargo information plates and a trem (information) card.
Some drivers have told police that when they complain about dangerous conditions their bosses threaten them with the sack.
In one recent case an employer advised a driver to continue with his journey after the driver had reported the emission of white vapour from his load of aluminium off-cuts, even though this meant going through a city centre.
Cleveland police force, which runs the only national course on hazardous chemicals, makes at least one big roadside inspection each month as well as smaller, more frequent checks. They find that about half the vehicles
examined have defects. This figure on roadside checks is confirmed nationally by the HSE.
Peter Morgan, a HSE spokesman, said: 'The cowboy end of the market is the real problem rather that the blue chip companies.' He said the main areas for transportation were in the North-west and North-east of England, Fawley in Hampshire and Canvey Island, Essex - areas where the big refineries and chemical plants are located.
He added that most of the HSE inspections are done at the haulage firm depots - although not all the operators are known because they do not have to register with the HSE.
Tony Cook, controller for hazardous goods at the Road Haulage Association, believes recent changes in the law have confused some operators. New European Community safety measures are to be introduced by 1995, including retraining for tanker drivers.