U.S. anti-terrorism officials recently alerted the public that al-Qaeda terrorists may be planning a truck bomb attack in the northeastern United States. The nation's trucking industry has been on alert for some time, in large part, due to a federally-funded, $20 million program called Highway Watch.
"We have a pledge. It's a person pledge. It's an industry pledge and that's to do our level best to see that one of our trucks is never used as a weapon," says Mike Russell, a spokesman for the American Trucking Association (ATA), the trade group that represents more than three million truck drivers nationwide.
"Our industry hauls nearly 70 percent of the freight moved in the United States. We have to keep rolling," adds Mr. Russell. "The entire manufacturing process in the U.S. - thus, the economy - depends on trucks. We stock grocery shelves by the hour. We just have to keep rolling. We're doing our level best to do that and keep a secure driving force behind the wheel." Mr. Russell says that, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the ATA has taken steps, including the use of high technology, to make sure terrorists can't use trucks as weapons.
"We can lock and unlock a truck with satellite," he says. "We can stop a truck dead in its tracks with a satellite if it's so equipped [with terrorists or bombs]. The number one thing to make sure our highways are secure is to prevent the situation from getting to that point anyway."
The ATA has also recruited more than 10,000 truck drivers for a nationwide, anti-terrorist program called Highway Watch. Truck drivers who volunteer for Highway Watch simply look for anything unusual or suspicious while they're out on the highway and report it to a national telephone hotline.
"The training for Highway Watch individuals consists of several hours of highway safety and antiterrorist activity recognition - being able to understand how terrorists would work, what things they might do in preparation for developing a plan of attack; and being able to recognize that and report it to the proper authorities," explains truck driver Michael Smuckers, one of the volunteers.
Mr. Smuckers says there are various ways to point out a suspicious-looking truck driver and suspicious-looking vehicle: certain size trucks aren't allowed in urban areas, for example; the tractor part of a truck may not match the trailer; signs indicating flammable or other kinds of material have to be positioned at exact locations on the truck. Another truck driver on Highway Watch, Bill Adams says truckers on America's roads are already looking for these sorts of things.
"Always. One thing that you do after all the years in trucks is that you notice everything around you all the time," he says. "You notice if something changes because you run the areas. Something you'd look for is a gasoline tanker in an area where you know that there are no service stations or no tank farms they'd been coming from or going to. That's just stuff that, on a daily basis, it clicks to us that, 'Hey is that guy lost?' And we'll ask him on the radio. If there's no response or anything, then, 'Hey, we'd better pick up the phone and call Highway Watch.'"
That kind of vigilance does raise concerns among civil liberatarians that Highway Watch drivers might be reporting anyone they see who appears to be from the Middle East in other words, profiling.
"We don't profile our drivers," says ATA spokesman Mike Russell. "We're looking for actions and incidents. We're not looking at people in particular. We have no idea of the ethnic make-up of the trucking industry, and we frankly don't care because it doesn't matter."
Commercial bus drivers, school bus drivers, highway maintenance crews, bridge and tunnel toll booth workers are also eligible for training in the Highway Watch program. It's hoped that the number of volunteers will exceed half a million in the next two years.