ATA offers a better security alternative

June 1, 2004
JUST in case anyone missed it, the federal rule mandating background checks for hazardous materials truck drivers took effect last month. The final rule

JUST in case anyone missed it, the federal rule mandating background checks for hazardous materials truck drivers took effect last month. The final rule was published in the May 6 Federal Register, and became effective immediately.

The final rule had two parts: First, it announced yet another delay (until February 2005) in implementation of fingerprint-based background checks for hazmat drivers. Second, it stated that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is initiating name-based background checks of these drivers.

The name-based checks will be underway within 180 days. TSA said in the final rule that it plans to begin checking the names and social security numbers of all drivers holding current hazmat endorsements. TSA also said it will not furnish motor carriers with the results of the background checks. This means a driver could lose his hazmat endorsement, and the fleet wouldn't know about it. That's going to be a problem.

Once the program is fully up and running, somewhere around 3.5 million truck drivers with hazmat endorsements on their commercial driver licenses will be required to submit to a background investigation, including a review of criminal, immigration, and Federal Bureau of Investigation records. The program is under the direction of the TSA, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), and Research and Special Programs Administration.

The fingerprint-based background checks will be done at the time of CDL renewal in most cases, and hazmat drivers can continue renewing their licenses and endorsements until September of this year. Since the CDL is good for five years, these drivers probably won't face the full background checks until 2009.

That fact raises a couple of questions. How much of a terrorist threat confronts the trucking industry in general, and especially hazmat haulers? What is the value of special background checks for holders of CDLs with hazmat endorsements?

In a recent letter to the TSA, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) also questioned part of the agency's overall justification for the CDL background checks. ATA pointed out that name-based checks of drivers are consistent with the USA PATRIOT Act statutory requirements. Nowhere in the Act is there a mandate for fingerprint-based checks as called for by TSA. That was a creation of the bureaucrats at TSA.

Further, the CDL background check program is very similar to the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) system, which will be deployed across a much broader spectrum of the transportation and logistics sector. The TWIC program would use fingerprint-based background screening and threat assessments of people in various parts of the transportation industry, including drivers with hazmat endorsements.

Considering that name-based checks against terrorist-related databases addresses the real threat, and that fingerprint-based checks of criminal history databases will be part of the more comprehensive TWIC program, ATA said in the letter that it recommends commencing with the name-based checks of drivers as proposed by TSA in the May 6 final rule and holding off on fingerprint-based checks until the TWIC program is rolled out.

The TWIC program already is in the pilot stage, which puts it farther along than the hazmat endorsement-based program. With that in mind, ATA wrote that “setting up a new process for a regime that will be enveloped by the broader TWIC program seems to be the essence of an unnecessary expenditure.”

ATA makes a good point. Rather than have TSA bureaucrats tripping over each other trying to manage nearly identical systems that cover many of the same people, the agency should settle on a single system that has a broad reach. That single system is the TWIC program.