Improved background checks needed

July 1, 2005
AT TIMES, it seems as though state and federal bureaucrats are absolutely determined to drive off a majority of the truck drivers who are experts at handling

AT TIMES, it seems as though state and federal bureaucrats are absolutely determined to drive off a majority of the truck drivers who are experts at handling hazardous materials. While that probably is an exaggeration, there is no question that the process of obtaining and maintaining a commercial driver license (CDL) with a hazmat endorsement is becoming increasingly burdensome and costly.

A case in point is the situation in Louisiana. Truck drivers licensed in this big chemical producing and petroleum refining state face unexpected headaches when renewing hazmat endorsements. Louisiana reportedly has refused to adopt Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines covering the issuance of hazmat endorsements.

Specifically, Louisiana will not renew a hazmat endorsement until Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) officials receive the results of the fingerprint-based background check even if the truck driver's current endorsement does not expire until sometime in the future. The driver is told that he is barred from hauling any hazardous materials loads until the background check is completed — a process that may take up to six weeks. Talk about a kick in the teeth.

Fortunately, truck drivers do have an option. Louisiana is one of the so-called “contract states” that is relying on Integrated Biometric Technologies, TSA's contractor, to run the background-check program. As a result, drivers can complete both the fingerprinting and initial processing without having to go to the DMV site. TSA will notify each driver when the background check is complete. If a driver begins the process far enough in advance of his CDL expiration, he won't have to go to the DMV site until after he receives the results.

Louisiana certainly is not alone in complicating the hazmat endorsement process. Other states have their own quirky policies. In addition, the background check can cost a driver more than $100, and many states offer just two or three fingerprint collection sites.

Recent terrorist events remind us that hazmat security is critical, and drivers are a key factor in the equation. However, we all lose and the terrorists win when the bureaucrats create unnecessary regulatory hurdles that push significant numbers of drivers out of the industry.

TSA already estimated that approximately 20% (about 540,000 drivers) would drop their hazmat endorsements over the next year. The percentage could go much higher if the difficulties persist in the new system for background checks.

Further, tank truck carriers that haul hazardous materials could find it increasingly difficult to attract new drivers. Some carriers already report that the background checks have had a chilling effect on new applicants.

Tank fleet capacity remains tight at a time of increasing freight demand. Shippers continue to report delays for some shipments, although not at the same levels as in 2004.

Plainly and simply, the TSA and the states need to make the driver background check process more user-friendly. Failure to fix the problems could have a widespread impact on the US economy that would offset virtually all of the security benefits.