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

Morgan Stanley had about 2,700 employees in the south tower of the World Trade Center. On Sept. 11, only six died. It was a miracle, but it was no accident. Shaken by the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the company had been conducting regular evacuation drills for about eight years. Almost by instinct, Morgan Stanley employees knew what to do when the airliner hit that morning.

“They had a plan – even in a catastrophe,” notes Jeffrey Beatty, a security expert who is serving as the American Trucking Associations’ international security and terrorism advisor.

Your own company should take certain steps, of course. CCJ Publisher Chip Magner covered many of them in his column last month. You should, for example, back up key files and keep them off site. You need to answer the key “what ifs.” What you would do if your headquarters were unavailable or incapacitated? What if a major bridge in your busiest lane were destroyed or declared off limits by the authorities?

As an executive for an individual trucking operation, about all you can do is consider what could happen and be prepared to respond. As an industry, however, trucking can help shape what should happen in a given threat or incident scenario. This is precisely what the industry, led by ATA, has been doing for the past several months.

On Sept. 11, there was no contingency plan. The only thing the federal government could do was shut down the entire U.S. aviation system for a couple of days until it figured out what to do.

What would happen if a couple of truck bombs exploded in a major city tomorrow? A similar shutdown would have dire consequences. True, two days of no passenger travel and no express package deliveries brought commerce to a standstill. But that’s nothing compared to what a lockdown would mean for critical supply chains like food, medical supplies or fuel.

The government’s response to a truck-related terrorist attack might be very reasonable and targeted. After all, unlike the situation on Sept. 11, we have had seven months to brace ourselves and plot “what ifs.” Moreover, the trucking industry’s security task force, which is being spearheaded by ATA, has isolated the key issues and concerns of all industry stakeholders. The task force’s work in progress could be shared with federal officials at a moment’s notice – if it hasn’t already.

As the war on terrorism drags on, the trucking industry may find the challenge of protecting itself tough enough. But ATA President William Canary challenges the industry to go even further. Sure, truckers should do all they can to prevent a truck from being used as a weapon of mass destruction. But the industry, through a nationwide rollout of Highway Watch, should also be the eyes and ears of homeland security, Canary says. It’s a bold challenge, but one that could do more for trucking’s image than anything we have seen in decades.

The whole “America’s Trucking Army” concept isn’t a totally selfless notion, of course, and image is only the beginning. Increasing security awareness among drivers is bound to pay off in reduced cargo theft, for example. It’s hard to get 3 million people to care about cargo theft. It’s much easier to motivate them to watch out for possible terrorists stealing trucks and trailers that might be used as weapons. The fallout from Sept. 11 also may give trucking companies more access to information on the background of prospective drivers. That’s good for carriers and the driving public.

In the end, no one should care that the trucking industry benefits from a few silver linings if it helps successfully fight the dark cloud of terrorism. And frankly, if all that the trucking industry gets out of the effort is the assurance of a specific plan of action that won’t shut trucking down for days on end, that’s plenty.