“To detect, prepare for, protect against, respond to and recover”
On Oct. 8, Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Ridge, a decorated Vietnam war hero, was sworn in as a key member of President George W. Bush’s anti-terrorism team. Vice President Dick Cheney planned to give Ridge the oath of office as head of the new Office of Homeland Security, but it apparently wasn’t advisable. Cheney stayed at a secure location and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas administered the oath instead. Ridge now has an office in the West Wing of the White House. His job is to “detect, prepare for, protect against, respond to and recover” from terrorists attacks.
Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge announced that his new job is to find the security “gaps” in the American infrastructure. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has long been concerned with certain practices in trucking that have impacted the economy of the industry. It is now clear these practices may leave safety and security gaps that place the entire nation at risk, says OOIDA President Jim Johnston.
“The ease at which certain persons obtained permits for the truck transportation of hazardous material drew the quick attention of investigators and security officials in the aftermath of the terrible events of Sept. 11,” says OOIDA’s Johnston. “This problem, however, only hints at several serious security-related problems in the trucking industry that I am urging Tom Ridge to investigate.”
Johnston addressed the issues in a letter to Ridge. Those critical areas, says OOIDA, include the aggressive recruitment by domestic motor carriers of foreign nationals to become truckdrivers in the United States, the misuse of U.S. visas to gain entry for foreign workers to become truckdrivers in the United States, the lax rules for background checks before hiring a truckdriver, and the meager requirements for obtaining a commercial drivers license in the United States.
“For years we have stated that the most important factor in truck safety is the experience and quality of the person behind the wheel,” Johnston says. “Unfortunately, there are not many obstacles to anyone getting a CDL for purposes that may be good or bad. The lack of qualifications necessary to become a truckdriver allows motor carriers to focus on finding the cheapest labor they can rather than qualified professionals.”
Johnston says the quest for cheap labor has lead U.S. carriers to look overseas in their recruitment efforts. “The recruiting efforts cover every region of the world,” he says. “If they have a warm body and their feet can reach the pedals, they can be a truckdriver. The foreign recruitment of drivers makes it easier for foreign nationals to come into the country where they easily gain access to 80,000-pound vehicles and all of the goods, raw materials, chemicals, fuel and munitions that are shipped by truck every day on our highways.”
In the letter to Ridge, Johnston writes that the foreign recruitment effort raises serious questions of national security and safety.
Several examples of this problem have been reported in the press. On March 12, two men pleaded guilty in federal court in Little Rock, AR, to several charges related to helping foreign truckdrivers obtain U.S. visas illegally. These men helped foreign nationals file false visa applications, including false reasons for wanting to come into the country. It was reported that the perpetrators of this scheme made their money from American trucking companies looking for drivers.
Johnston also cited the CDL scandal in Illinois. In that case, state government officials were paid to provide CDLs to foreign nationals some of whom did not know how to speak English (a requirement for the job and required by federal safety regulations) and did not even have truckdriver training.
“We also believe that some motor carriers use H-2B temporary seasonal visas to bring drivers into the country,” Johnston says. “They falsify their need for temporary drivers and then ignore the H-2B’s expiration dates. We see little effort on the part of the federal government to monitor compliance with the conditions of such visas. A similar problem came to light in the investigation of those suspected of hijacking the planes on Sept. 11. Some of those men apparently entered the country legally, and then had no problem remaining here beyond their visa expiration.”
Gaining easy entry into the country is just the beginning of the problem, says Johnston. There are few requirements for obtaining a CDL and/or a hazardous material permit. There are no mandatory training requirements before anyone can get a CDL. All one needs to do is pass a written and, usually brief, driving test. Once a motor carrier finds a person with a CDL, the federal regulations require that a motor carrier contact the driver’s prior employers to do a background check within 30 days after that person is hired and begins work. It seems to OOIDA that 30 days is plenty of time in which to discover “the hard way” whether a new driver is a safety or security risk. Once a carrier hires a driver and gets him or her behind the wheel, however, we do not think there is much of an incentive for it to actually perform a background check.
OOIDA has long advocated the establishment of mandatory driver training and a period of supervised apprenticeship to improve the quality of truckdrivers and the safety of our highways. Johnston says now there may be national security reasons to support such a rule.
There are many regulations that mandate standards for the physical condition of the truck and for the operation of the vehicle, but few that screen the driver before they are allowed to get behind the wheel of a truck. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration recently published a list of “Security Talking Points.” These included many good suggestions, but OOIDA points out that few, if any of them, are practiced within the trucking industry today.
“As we can learn from recent events, national security may be strengthened if we had more confidence in the process by which people are selected to drive a truck,” says Johnston. “We can and must do a better job of making sure the people we give the privilege of controlling 80,000-pound vehicles on our highways are people in whom we have confidence to do the job safely and responsibly. The willingness to work long hours for low pay should not be the main criteria for recruiting new drivers.”