CRANBURY, N.J. – The truck drivers who haul cargo labeled as flammable, combustible, radioactive or poisonous are now going to be scrutinized as closely as the hazardous materials that fill their tankers and trailers.
In the coming months, roughly 3 million drivers across the nation will begin to be fingerprinted and put through FBI criminal background checks. Their names also are cross-referenced with federal databases related to terrorist activity, a practice the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (search) began last year.
"Some of us are against it and some of us are for it because of safety since 9/11," said Michael Johnson, a trucker from Mauldin, S.C., during a recent break at the Molly Pitcher Rest Stop in Middlesex County on the New Jersey Turnpike (search).
"The drivers that drive, they want to be safe," he said. "Some of them are against it because they say it's impeding their privacy."
The TSA and the FBI will conduct the "security threat assessments" as drivers renew their credentials allowing them to haul hazardous materials. Drivers who haul hazardous materials must attach a placard to the back of their tankers or trucks.
After a criminal record search, the TSA could either give drivers a green light to be recertified, or classify them as threats and prevent them from transporting hazardous materials. The TSA will notify the state where a driver is licensed of its findings. Drivers could appeal the decisions.
The truckers — authorized to carry materials such as gasoline, propane, chlorine and dynamite — will have to pay $94 for the fingerprinting. Some of their companies will pick up the tab.
"This is the consequence of 9/11," said Bill MacLeod, spokesman for the federal Motor Carrier Administration (search). "The reasoning had to do with the mitigation of threats against people and property that may come from hazardous material loads, whether they be hijacked and used for purposes that could create harm to again, people and properties."
Until now, drivers' background checks were left for trucking companies to perform, which most of the bigger ones did, said Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association (search) in East Brunswick.
But the searches typically would not be as extensive as the FBI's, or cover criminal records in other states, mostly because of the expense.
Toth, who noted that teachers and other professionals undergo similar scrutiny, said some truckers are upset by the new requirements.
"The biggest thing that's unfortunate is that they feel singled out. It's a very justifiable feeling," said Toth, whose nonprofit trade association represents more than 1,000 truckers.
The program is part of the USA Patriot Act (search), which Congress adopted in October 2001 to expand the government's surveillance powers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Dennis O'Leary, a manager for Lorco Petroleum Services in Elizabeth, N.J., said his company did not perform criminal background checks before the new regulations. He said he supports the program.
"If there's a truck coming through my hometown where my kids are, I feel more secure if I know who is transporting has been checked out," he said.
O'Leary said he would feel better if the government expanded the checks to cover all drivers, particularly those who may be in the country illegally. "I'd feel better if everyone was checked out," he said.
As of Jan. 31, drivers who want to get a first-time hazardous material certification on their commercial driver's licenses have to be fingerprinted and take the usual computer-based test. Those up for renewal after May 31 will have to do the same.
"We'll be able to know not only who is driving and transporting hazardous materials, but we'll be able to restrict people who have certain kinds of convictions," said Sharon Harrington, chief administrator for the state Motor Vehicle Commission.
Temporary disqualifying offenses could include people convicted of some felonies or who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the past seven years. People released from prison in the last five years for sexual assault with intent to murder, kidnapping or hostage taking, and those with immigration violations also would be disqualified.
Treason, espionage and murder convictions are among the crimes that would permanently disqualify drivers from getting or keeping their hazardous material endorsements.
"It's just the way, unfortunately, our world has changed so much," said Toth. "Could you imagine if you're the trucking company and you didn't have this ability and had a person employed, and had no idea that they're the next terrorist?"