Hazmat Trucks Draw Scrutiny
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
Thousands of trucks carry explosives, fuels, corrosive acids and other volatile chemical agents over America's highways every day with state-issued hazardous material placards reminding passing vehicles and cargo handlers to exercise special caution.
Now that the U.S. Department of Transportation has asked law enforcement agencies to pull over all such trucks and verify drivers? identity and background, the placards have become magnets of suspicion.
Concern that the nation?s trucking fleet might be used by terrorists to launch a chemical or biological attack heightened after federal agents arrested ten men for their connection to an alleged hazmat permit fraud ring in Pittsburgh, Penn.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is working with state law enforcement officials to prevent use of highways, roads and motor vehicles in potential future terrorist plots, but an FBI spokesman refused to comment on the details of the collaboration.
In comparison with the preparation and expertise needed to hijack commercial airliners and crash them into precise targets, obtaining clearance to drive a truck loaded with hazardous materials is relatively easy, trucking industry observers say.
Anyone over age 21 may apply for an interstate commercial driver?s license (CDL). The federal government sets the rules for obtaining a CDL, which is required to drive tractor-trailers and heavy-duty trucks as well as many lighter trucks and vans.
Hundreds of schools across the country prepare would-be truckers to pass a written exam and a skills test that includes completion of a pre-trip inspection, basic maneuvering and a road test.
Possession of a CDL is mandatory in order to obtain a hazmat "endorsement" or permit, which is also federally regulated but administered by the states.
A spokesperson for Advanced Tech Courses , a Grawn, Mich., firm that offers an $95 online CDL course said "any person of average intelligence could pass the [hazmat] test after 15 to 20 hours of study." But federal regulations stipulate that employers are ultimately responsible for making sure drivers are qualified to transport any hazardous material.
American Trucking Association spokesperson Mike Russell says this week?s arrests "highlight problems with the current CDL licensing system."
Russell said companies are often unable to get driving records from state agencies and other background information from previous employers that would help them fully ensure safety on the highway.
The Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration, the DOT agency established in January 2000 to provide a focus on highway safety for commercial traffic, features on its web site a list of "security talking points" it plans to share in coming months with the estimated 80,000 firms licensed to transport hazardous materials.
The list includes tighter background checks, adequate lighting and fencing at trucking terminals and route selection that avoids major cities and towns whenever possible.