Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge says 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 led 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 H2-B temporary seasonal visas to bring drivers
into the country," Johnston says. "They falsify their need for temporary
drivers and then ignore the H2-B'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