SPECIAL REPORT: OOIDA calls on TSA to protect truckers’ privacy

| 12/29/2004

OOIDA has once again stressed the need to protect the privacy rights of hazmat drivers who are undergoing background checks ordered by the federal government.

The association covered privacy and  a number of other issues in its comments to the Transportation Security Administration, which were made recently in response to proposed changes in the rules for the background checks. The association emphasized "privacy is the most important issue for truck drivers concerned about the impending background checks."

"Truck drivers guard their right to privacy jealously," the association said in the written comments, which were filed Dec. 27.

"Their biggest worry is that private information will be misused or that incorrect or ambiguous information will become attached to their professional reputation and work history. Either scenario could put an end to a trucking career."

OOIDA has said that the top priority for truck drivers in the new rules is that "the TSA will not give to third parties the information used to assess drivers' backgrounds."

TSA's latest changes
Under regulations that are part of the USA Patriot Act, all CDL holders who either have or are seeking a hazmat endorsement must submit their fingerprints and obtain a security clearance from the TSA before they can be issued a new or renewed CDL with the endorsement.

The TSA requested public comments about the latest set of changes in the background check rules in late November. The agency previously revealed that it was considering the use of a third-party organization, rather than government workers, to gather fingerprints.

The latest set of proposed changes to the fingerprint and background check rules were posted on the Internet by the TSA in late November.

The changes include the removal of simple drug possession from the list of crimes that can disqualify a hazmat driver. Arson, which under a previous version of the rules would have permanently disqualified a driver, is now listed as an "interim" disqualifier, while murder - previously on the "interim" list - can now permanently disqualify a driver.

OOIDA addressed a number of the issues covered in the latest set of changes. Among those were:

Foreign drivers
Changes proposed by TSA would allow certain foreign citizens who are qualified to hold CDLs to apply for security threat assessments. OOIDA strongly opposes the change.

"The only reasons set forth in the (interim final rule) are that these persons are legally allowed to work in the United States, that they have properly obtained a CDL and that the trucking industry is in search of cheap labor," OOIDA said in its comments. "None of these reasons bear on the risk that this population may pose to homeland security.

"How will TSA know whether that person committed crimes or acts in their country of origin that would disqualify them from holding an HME? This is the kind of advantage a terrorist would try to exploit."

In addition, OOIDA pointed out that the rule would allow non-citizens whose backgrounds could not be checked to qualify for jobs when U.S. citizens would be required to have their backgrounds examined. That, OOIDA contends, provides those foreign drivers a "competitive advantage."

Another change would disqualify a driver from receiving a hazmat endorsement if that driver engaged in the "unlawful purchase, receipt, transfer, shipping, transporting, import, export and storage of a firearm or explosives," according to a notice on the DOT Web site.

In the association's written comments, OOIDA officials said they were concerned because of inconsistencies between the states; a trucker who was acting lawfully in his home state could be disqualified in another.

"OOIDA does not ask the TSA to condone the violations of state or local firearms laws," stated OOIDA's written comments. "But if an individual has all the proper permits and licenses in their home state or locality for a firearm, but is found not in compliance when traveling through another state or locality, this fact does not indicate that the person is a terrorist threat."

The group also pointed out previous cases in which truckers possessed items that would not normally be considered weapons, but which led to potential legal problems.

"Any number of common, ordinary items may or may not be considered a weapon under different state or local laws," OOIDA officials wrote. "Legal possession of firearms or many ordinary items does not indicate the owner is a terrorist or security threat."

For example, the association pointed to the case of an OOIDA member who was arrested in Michigan and charged with possession of a deadly weapon for having a hunting knife in his cab.

Another truck driver was warned by the California Highway Patrol about carrying a tire thumper next to his seat. The thumper had a cord through the grip when it was purchased, and the officer said that would be considered a billy club and unlawful to possess.

A third OOIDA member was arrested because he was carrying a flare gun. That truck driver was also told by a police officer that the claw hammer he carried under his seat could be considered a deadly weapon.

"OOIDA urges the TSA to narrow the definition of this disqualifying offense to more accurately identify the type of violent or deceptive wrongdoer that TSA considers a terrorist threat," OOIDA officials wrote.

To see the interim final rule, click here (http://dmses.dot.gov/docimages/p79/307543.pdf).

To view OOIDA's comments on the latest changes, click here (http://www.ooida.com/at_issue/Homeland_security_concerns/Hazmat_comments.pdf).

- By Mark H. Reddig, associate editor