A triumph for trucker vigilance

Avery Vise is editorial director of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail avise@randallpub.com.

What Ron Lantz did early in the morning on Oct. 24 was in some ways a small thing. He simply made a phone call and parked his truck. What’s significant is the number he called (911) and where he parked his truck (across the exit of a Maryland rest area on I-70). With those actions, Lantz helped end the manhunt for a sniper who had virtually paralyzed the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area for three weeks.

Lantz was acting on information provided by disc jockey Dale Sommers – aka The Truckin’ Bozo – who alerted listeners, including Lantz, to the description of the blue Chevrolet Caprice being driven by suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo.

As I write just a day after the arrest of Muhammad and Malvo, there is some question as to whether Lantz was the first person to call 911 with the suspects’ whereabouts. No matter. Lantz’s decision to honor a police dispatcher’s request that he block a potential escape makes him a hero. Lantz, who drives for Flemington, N.J.-based Bass Transportation, put himself in real danger. Fortunately for Lantz, the two men were asleep in the car.

The sniper capture is just the latest example of alert truck drivers helping law enforcement. Also last month, a truck driver helped authorities find a 14-year-old Nevada girl who had been kidnapped. The driver called 911 after spotting a pickup truck that matched a description broadcast by the Amber Alert system in Texas. Amber Alert systems, named for a nine-year-old Texas girl who was abducted and murdered in 1996, operate in many states and are activated when a child is abducted.

Just a few days after the Nevada girl’s rescue, California’s lieutenant governor announced a partnership between the California Highway Patrol and the California Trucking Association to include truck drivers in that state’s Amber Alert system. The highway patrol now has access to CTA’s notification system that can send the word out quickly to 2,000 member companies operating 38,000 trucks.

And then there’s Highway Watch, an initiative supported by the American Trucking Association and organized in individual states. Highway Watch, which currently operates in 15 states, was launched as a highway safety initiative. The idea was that commercial truck drivers could help reduce accidents, injuries and deaths by reporting unsafe drivers, drunken driving, poor road or weather conditions, poor highway or construction zone signage and road rage.

In the wake of Sept. 11, ATA this year added a security element to Highway Watch training as part of the industry’s Anti-Terrorism Action Plan. The Justice Department too had planned to tap the watchdog potential offered by several million truck drivers as part of its Operation TIPS, which also included other workers who routinely travel through communities. The entire Operation TIPS initiative stalled, however, over objections that the government was encouraging Americans to spy on one another.

That’s unfortunate. Certainly, there are legitimate concerns about deputizing millions of truck drivers. Encouraging every trucker in the nation to seek out and report anything suspicious is not necessarily a good idea, but that’s not really what the industry or Justice Department propose for “America’s Trucking Army.”

Using drivers to spot likely terrorist activity requires considerable training and is a major undertaking. But as we have seen with the sniper case and in Amber Alerts, the concept can work well when authorities can tell drivers precisely what to look for. As Ron Lantz and others have shown, truck drivers are a ready and willing resource. And perhaps by tapping that resource, the trucking industry can win some much-needed goodwill with politicians and the American public.