Stop It!

Randy Grider
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“Stop that truck!” might be more than a just a trucking company’s desperate plea when it comes to potential hijackings. It might be a call for immediate action. But at what cost?

In late October, InterState Oil Company, in conjunction with the California Highway Patrol and Satellite Security Systems, demonstrated what they are touting as “the first remote shutdown of a fully loaded moving petrochemical tanker truck.”

This high-tech demonstration comes in the middle of proposed California legislation (AB 575) that would require disabling devices on hazmat haulers. The trucks would have to be equipped with a device that allows a law enforcement officer, a motor carrier or motor carrier agent to disable them in the case of a hijacking – with the focus being on a terrorist attack involving a hazmat load. The bill recently failed in the California Senate but is expected to resurface for another vote in January.

The California Trucking Association is opposed to the legislation on grounds that it puts in-state carriers at a competitive disadvantage with out-of-state truckers.

While this potential government intrusion into the industry seems to have problem areas (it doesn’t specify whether it applies to intrastate or interstate trucks or make clear what kind of disabling device must be used), this latest technology to deter and prevent future terrorist attacks involving hazmat cargo is at least less laughable than past ideas.

Remember the smash-and-stop technology that got some press after 9-11? It worked basically like this. A metal bar would be attached at car bumper level to the back of the tractor-trailer. By ramming into the bar from behind, the mechanism would sever the air lines and stop the truck. A great rush hour amusement for the whole motoring family. “Hey, Dad. Ram a few more, and it’ll be clear sailing to the beach. We’ll make great time.”

The bumper-bar approach to stopping terrorists and rogue drivers was so asinine that most people with a little common sense could easily see its flaws. But some California politicos and law enforcement officials announced it was the answer to the trucking industry’s security woes. Maybe they’ve seen too many Mad Max movies. Can you imagine what would happen in the event of a false report? It could be a disaster for the pursuing police, the truck’s driver and/or anyone in the area.

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The one saving grace for doing a remote shutdown as compared to bumper tag would be for law enforcement. At least some poor peace officer wouldn’t have to execute a 75-mile per hour tap-and-dive-right maneuver in order not to crash into the abruptly stopping truck.

In almost all cases of a truck reported stolen, you aren’t going to know what you have until after you have stopped the suspected truck. If it’s a truck hijacked by terrorists, and they are stopped before reaching their target, chances are that they’re going to detonate a bomb wherever they might be – crowded interstate, downtown. As one colleague pointed out, “If you know a terrorist has stolen a truck, a helicopter-fired missile would accomplish the same thing.”

But the reality is that terrorists are not as stupid as we would like to believe. They plan their missions and could probably disable whatever device is on a vehicle. (You may find this hard to believe, but the original version of AB 575 called for markings on the outside of the truck “to identify the activation method of the disconnect device.” Someone thought that might not be a good idea and dropped it from the bill.)

If individual truckers or carriers want to put a disabling device on their rigs, that’s their prerogative and their right. And if these devices are ever used in the real world, I wish for a good outcome. But requiring all California hazmat rigs to place a device to bring their trucks to a dead stop sounds like a waste of time and money and a potential danger for public safety.

As for high-tech solutions, a covert device that allows only the driver assigned to the truck to start it would be a better option. (Most trucks are probably not going to be stolen while in motion, except in case of a California-style Mad Max hijacking, which seems unlikely.)

But the best prevention is still vigilance. This doesn’t require legislation, just common sense.

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