SPECIAL REPORT: Big changes for truck-stopping technology bill, but measure moving ahead in California

| 5/21/2003

California legislators are still working on a bill that would require hazmat truckers to put devices on their trucks to enable police to stop the vehicles.

Gone from the measure is a provision requiring exterior markings to identify how a truck can be stopped. Also gone are references to specific truck-stopping technologies.

And while state officials say more big changes in the bill are likely, officials at the very least seem determined that some version of the measure will pass.

According to Howard Posner, a consultant for the Assembly Transportation Committee, the bill now moving through the General Assembly, AB575, is designed to keep hazardous materials out of the hands of terrorists.

“It’s only going to apply to flammable materials, radiological isotopes and a very small list of essentially materials that terrorists might use,” he said. The law would cover fuel trucks.

But the proposal has raised concerns among some in the trucking industry, including OOIDA.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said “If you wanted to provide a blueprint for destruction to terrorists, this would be the way you would do it.”

“We suggest state officials go back to the drawing board,” Spencer added. “This idea didn’t pass the laugh test when it was floated once before.”

Some truckers have expressed their concerns directly to state officials.

“I’ve sat in meetings with truckers who said ‘hey, this will help folks hijack our trucks’,” Posner said. The truckers are not absolutely wrong, he added.

“It would give them a potential means of stopping a truck, but then they would have to figure out how to deactivate the device,” Posner said. “Since hijackings tend to take place in a fairly quick time frame, you’re probably not going to want to hijack a truck that you have to then get underneath and fiddle around with some mechanism to move it again.”

“The answer is yeah, that’s a problem, but law-enforcement doesn’t think it’s a big problem.”

Lt. Hal Koehncke of the California Highway Patrol’s Special Rep’s Office, also discounted that the devices would enable more hijacking, noting that most truck thefts begin as inside jobs. But the exterior markings could have presented problems.

“Obviously one of the weaknesses would be that if everybody knew how to stop the truck, then we might defeat the purpose,” Koehncke said.

In Southern California, reports of truck hijackings have risen steadily over the past five years. The region is popular to thieves because of the number of ports, interstate highways and warehouses. Nationwide, cargo thieves will steal an estimated $12 billion to $20 billion in goods this year.

The bill would require all covered hazmat trucks to have some kind of disconnect device – an external mechanism that would either activate the brakes or cut off the fuel to the engine. The device would have to be built in a way that would allow Highway Patrol officers to activate it from the outside.

“You could use any number of technologies,” Posner said. “There’s one that attaches to the rear bumper where if a police car chasing you hits your bumper it activates your brakes. There’s another where the patrol car might carry some sort of laser gun that deactivates your fuel supply. There’s another that operates through GPS where your own carrier if you call them and let them know you’ve been hijacked they can cut off your fuel supply.”

The original text of the bill would require markings on the outside of the truck “to identify the activation method of the [disconnect] device.” Later versions dropped that requirement. In fact, the bill does not at this time contain any provision that the truck owner tell the Highway Patrol what device is onboard.

“We get the language from the Highway Patrol,” Posner said. “They’re the ones who originally asked for the letter and then they dropped that. I guess they decided it wasn’t necessary.”

Koehncke said the state had several alternatives to exterior markings. For example, the state could require the type of stopping device to be listed on the registration information called up by Highway Patrol officers in their cars. That information is not typically available to the public, but easily available to officers.

The bill also no longer specifies what kind of truck-stopping devices be used, leaving that decision to the truck owner or motor carrier.

“The Highway Patrol determined that they didn’t want to be dictating the technology,” Posner said.

The devices mentioned in the bill’s original text are still accepted – in fact, to the state’s knowledge, they are the only ones available.

“They just wanted to make sure that these loads could be stopped remotely,” Posner said. “If some new technology came along that wasn’t in the bill, they didn’t want to preclude it.”

Koehncke said the stopping devices California is considering would not bring a truck to an immediate halt. Most are being designed, he said, to bring a vehicle to a gradual halt.

He also stressed the devices would only be used if there were reason to think the truck was about to be involved in some kind of illegal activity or an attack, or had been hijacked already.

“If we’re stopping something in an emergency, that is less problematic than their continued operation,” he said.

Koehncke said having the ability to stop a vehicle in traffic is not without precedent. For example, he said, during high-speed pursuits of cars, police will frequently set out a “spike strip” to halt the vehicle.

AB575 also contains other provisions, including a requirement for GPS tracking devices that would allow carriers to find a hazmat truck’s location at any time.

AB575 passed the Assembly Transportation Committee April 29.

Posner said the bill would likely come up for consideration during the last week of May. A spokesman for the Appropriations Committee confirmed that, saying the bill went to “suspense” till that time.

Both Koehncke and Posner expect the bill to be heavily amended at that time, with Posner adding that the amendments would likely “narrow the scope of the bill.”

“The version of the bill you’re looking at is going to change based on some meetings we’ve had with stakeholders in the industry,” Koehncke said. Those meetings included the California Trucking Association and CIOMA, the California Independent Oil Marketeers Association, which represents independent oil haulers.

However, he was not sure how much input owner-operators have had into the process. And he said state officials were aware that the bill presents special challenges to truckers who own their own rigs.

“There are some problems with things like what the author wants to do on the GPS and stuff because it does create an additional burden on the owner-operator,” Koehncke said. “A lot of big trucking companies already have GPSs on a lot of their trucks. The independent guy is pretty stuck, he’s by himself and it’s an added expense. It’s recognized that the independent person has problems when it comes to the GPS that the big companies don’t.”

“The bottom line is we’re working with the author, we’re working with the industry to try to get something that’s workable,” Koehncke said.

If the bill becomes law, after July 1, 2005, truckers who are based in California and do not carry the devices could face a misdemeanor charge, including a maximum penalty or 1 year in jail or a $10,000 fine.

--by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor

Mark Reddig can be reached at mark_reddig@landlinemag.com.