Trucking snared in slippery ‘war’

One of our CDL-holding editors, Carolyn Magner, walked into the Alabama Department of Transportation recently, took a 30-question test and walked out 20 minutes later with a hazmat endorsement. While Carolyn does not look like a terrorist, the ease with which she – or apparently anyone else – can qualify to haul potentially dangerous materials concerns many in trucking and government. So much so that the USA Patriot Act passed by Congress will require drivers who apply for, or already have, a hazmat endorsement to undergo a criminal history record check.

In another post-9/11 security push, the Kentucky Legislature passed measures requiring criminal history checks of all commercial driver’s license applicants, as well as CDL instructors and students. All applicants would also be fingerprinted. As we went to press, the measure was awaiting Gov. Paul Patton’s signature.

The American Trucking Associations has also joined in, applauding the Department of Transportation’s recommendation for a national transportation worker identification card. And DAC, an employment screening and drug testing service, moved into offices in the ATA building in order to further their joint work “in relation to current security concerns.”

It’s tough to argue against programs implemented in the name of national security. But we have to ask: Will criminal background checks of student truck drivers and hazmat haulers really make a difference?

The answer is, probably not. After all, how many of the Sept. 11 terrorists had criminal records? Besides, terrorists bent on destruction will find a way. Timothy McVeigh – who did not look like a terrorist, either – is a prime example. Without a CDL or a hazmat endorsement, he drove a rental truck to the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people.

Beyond their questionable effectiveness in preventing terrorist acts, criminal background checks raise other concerns. Isn’t singling out truck drivers for such an invasion of privacy a form of profiling? And what types of criminal activity would disqualify someone from going to truck driving school or getting a hazmat endorsement? Would a teenage shoplifting offense end someone’s dreams of driving a big rig?

As we wage the war on terror, separating the programs and policies that actually improve national security from those that merely advance another industry or governmental agenda will be critical. It will not, however, be easy. Especially when “It’s a matter of national security” carries about the same clout as “It’s for the children.” Who can argue with that?