Driving on the Front Lines

Trucking has been on the front lines of the nation’s economy for years. Now, along with a number of other industries such as aviation, trucking is on the front lines of the nation’s homeland security battle as well.

Federal and state officials just finished visiting every carrier registered to haul hazardous materials. According to some within the industry, those visits were akin to a courtesy call with a purpose.

Inspectors from the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration and state officials just completed visiting 11,000 hazmat carriers. “The CHP and FMCSA both paid visits to every registered hazardous materials carrier in California,” says Warren Hoemann, vice president public affairs of the California Trucking Association. Hoemann adds the visits were not “adversarial encounters.”

According to Hoemann, law enforcement officials were looking for specific suspects who may have obtained, or tried to obtain, a CDL with hazmat endorsement. Plus, inspectors made suggestions for helping the carriers beef up their security. Mike Thomas, an FMCSA spokesman, said the visits resulted in between “85 and 100 findings of suspicious activities which we referred to the local FBI offices.”

“All these years, when we’ve mentioned the word security, we’ve been talking about cargo theft,” Hoemann notes.

“We are now in a situation, just like the airlines, that we have to consider every day what can we do to prevent our vehicle and our shipment from becoming a tool by someone who wishes to wreak havoc,” Hoemann says.

Truckers have already seen extra scrutiny at weigh stations and inspection stations. Because of the concern terrorists might get their hands on a tanker of gasoline or some other hazardous load, inspectors have been instructed to focus on hazmat haulers, especially on drivers documentation.

California officials have seen first hand what a suicidal guy with a truck can do. Last year, a mentally unstable man drove his truck into the state’s capitol building. While his load was only canned milk, the resultant fire killed the driver and did millions of dollars in damage to the building.

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“That’s often been cited as an example (of what a terrorist could do) because that was as much a terrorist act as that of a mentally disturbed person,” he says. “It clearly shows the impact the vehicle itself can have,” if used as a weapon.

Truckers have taken note. According to industry reports, since Sept. 11, truckers have been buying alarms and other security systems in record numbers. Companies making such systems report record demand. Even those not equipping their trucks with alarms are being more cautious. Many drivers have told us they now take extra time to make sure their truck and trailer are secured.

And of course, there are the new rules being developed that will require major background checks for anyone applying for a new CDL with hazmat authority or re-applying for such an endorsement. The background check is to be conducted by the FMCSA and the U.S. Justice Department.

Recent reports suggest federal transportation officials are also considering a federal identification card for all transportation workers. Such cards would include biometric identifiers and would supposedly contain any CDL information, so a driver would only need the one card. According to news reports, the recommended action is to head off a proliferation of ID cards at ports, shippers and other places. The federal card would supercede and replace these multiple cards.

Most truckers I’ve talked to over the 14 year’s I’ve written about the trucking industry have said the thing they like most about their job is the independence and freedom – the freedom to go about their job without someone looking over their shoulder.

Since Sept. 11, the industry will be under a much brighter spotlight. And truckers, as independent and freedom loving as they are, seem willing to go along with the extra scrutiny in the name of safety.

Welcome to the front lines.