SPECIAL REPORT: Schumer plan looks to terrorism via trucks; OOIDA responds

| 1/2/2003

Fuel-laden trucks carrying hazardous materials are a potential terrorist weapon the federal government needs to more closely regulate, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said in a December letter to the Transportation Security Administration.

"The TSA has done an admirable job with securing our airports, and now I respectfully urge that the TSA put the same effort into ensuring the safety of our trucks," Schumer wrote. "As I am sure you are aware, the imminent danger posed by unsecured trucks has been highlighted by three attacks this year in which fuel-laden trucks were used."

In April, a terrorist drove a truck carrying liquefied natural gas and ignited his cargo in front of a synagogue in Tunisia, killing 21 tourists. In May and August, terrorists attached remotely triggered bombs to Israeli fuel tankers.

Terrorism experts say the attacks signal a new tactic being employed by terrorists, said Schumer, who also cited the recent incident of a Mexican truck stolen near Mexico City that contained 96 drums of cyanide. Although the theft was not a terrorist incident, it did demonstrate the ease of stealing a truck with hazardous materials.

New York City is vulnerable because its entryways from New Jersey carry heavy truck traffic. The George Washington Bridge sees approximately 15,000 trucks a day, the Holland Tunnel is traveled by nearly 8,000 and nearly 9,000 trucks pass along the Goethals/Verrazano/Gowanus/BQE each day, Schumer said.

Schumer fears a truck laden with hazardous material could be parked next to a large office building and cause untold damage. He said 2,000 hazardous materials shipments pass through the city each day and the only existing government regulation of such shipments deals with driving safety.

Schumer wants GPS and panic buttons; OOIDA responds

Schumer suggested truck fleets adopt Global Positioning System (GPS) technology as quickly as possible.

"If a terrorist planned an attack using a truck carrying dangerous chemicals or fuel, authorities would quickly be able to tell that the shipment was off course, pinpoint the location of the truck and stop the attack," Schumer said.

However, Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, disagreed.

"The senator should be concerned about terrorism and trucks," Spencer said. "But his suggestions are off the mark. There are some 800,000 hazmat shipments a day in the United States, and 300,000 of those are carrying gasoline into every community in the country. How would you know which of those trucks is off-route?

"For example, an accident or bad weather could cause a truck to be off-route," he said. "When would the alarm go off in such a case? We should be thinking about the quality of the truckdriver through professional training related to the potential of trucks as terrorist weapons and providing a far greater level of scrutiny to who has access to trucks to start with."

Schumer also suggested increasing research into new security technology, such as panic buttons in case a truck is hijacked or automatic engine kill switches that could be triggered remotely in case a truck is stolen or veers of its intended delivery route.

"Once again, there's little thought here about the truckdriver," Spencer said. "If I'm a driver and someone tells me my truck is suddenly going to stop, I'd be thinking about my own safety, not to mention that of other drivers on the highway. I can't think of a scenario where a panic button or kill switch would make me more comfortable."

Schumer's other suggestions

In Schumer's letter to Adm. James M. Loy, undersecretary of transportation for security, the senator suggested a four-point plan. As part of that plan, the TSA should perform background checks on all drivers applying for state commercial driver's licenses. This step should first be implemented for drivers applying for hazmat licenses, as those shipments are the most at risk.

Meanwhile, Spencer noted the federal government is now in the process of writing regulations on background checks.

--By Dick Larsen, senior editor