The unfolding threat

Everything changed on Sept. 11. as the paralyzing shock of the terrorist attacks slowly gave way to resolute determination to prevent another catastrophe, the implications for the trucking industry came into focus.

In the first few days, it surely crossed the minds of many truckers that terrorists could have used large trucks rather than planes to commit these horrendous acts. It took but about two weeks, however, for speculative fears to become grounded in fact.

In late September, authorities disclosed that at least 10 people with possible ties to terrorist activities had been arrested on charges of fraudulently obtaining commercial driver’s licenses with hazardous materials endorsements. These individuals – along with several others still sought – alledgedly bought the CDLs from a license examiner in Pennsylvania.

Put aside the question of whether these men really are terrorists. It’s deplorable enough to sell CDLs, but to sell CDLs with hazmat endorsements is an act of almost inconceivable amorality. An unqualified hazmat driver is no better than an evil one.

As the threat of terrorist acts using hazardous materials became clear, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has taken reasonable and appropriate steps to heighten security awareness. FMCSA personnel began visiting trucking companies that haul hazardous materials to educate them about threats to security. Officials assure the industry that these visits are not intended to be enforcement-oriented. States also have increased their level of inspections of hazardous materials trucks and drivers. Hazmat carriers are on alert to report suspicious activity by employees or customers to their local FBI offices.

Hazmat carriage is getting all the attention now, but there’s no guarantee that the threat will stop there. It’s the nature of terrorism to look for new targets once the obvious ones are secured. Due to their mobility and size, van trailers could become vessels for weapons of mass destruction. Bulk food carriers might become targets for biological attacks. Because they are less conspicuous, medium-duty trucks might end up vehicles of destruction. It all sounds paranoiac, but how can anyone, after Sept. 11, say, “That could never happen?”

The war on terrorism could have longer-term and chronic implications for trucking. Greater emphasis on background checks is inevitable, and recruitment efforts aimed at immigrants are in doubt. Access routes to urban centers may become restricted or eliminated altogether. In general, transporting goods may become more laborious and time-consuming. And cargo theft has taken on a whole new dimension.

Inconvenience and vigilance are the dues we all must pay to ensure that the 7,000 or so people who died on Sept. 11 are the last to die on our soil at the hands of terrorists. At least momentarily, the United States is moving from a nation of open commerce to one where national security is paramount.

For now, few would question this transformation. As time passes, however, we need to reassess the threat and determine whether extreme measures are still warranted. President Bush, for example, acted decisively by naming Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to head the new Office of Homeland Security. Today, we probably do need a “czar” to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts. But months or years from now, this new bureaucracy may try to preserve its own existence by seeking to neutralize threats that don’t really exist.

Eventually, the trucking industry may have to come to terms with whether impediments to commerce are still justified by the threat of terrorism. But with the horrors of Sept. 11 still fresh in our hearts, Americans today accept that they must endure personal and professional sacrifice. Trucking must do its part.

Avery Vise is editorial director of Commercial Carrier Journal.E-mail