A year after Sept. 11, cargo trucks still vulnerable

Security of chemical rigs lax, terror experts warn

October 20, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

After the terrorist attacks last year, U.S. intelligence agencies and experts warned that America's vast fleet of trucks, particularly rigs hauling loads of explosive fuel or toxic chemicals, would be ideal terrorist weapons.

Fresh threats against economic targets and three attacks overseas this year using fuel trucks have convinced security officials that America's trucks pose a greater risk than ever, particularly with aviation security tightened. But little has been done to make trucks safer.

Truck security systems already widely used elsewhere in the world remain novelties in the United States. Truck inspections, although there are more of them, remain rare. Industry groups have started training drivers how to spot possible terrorists but have so far reached only a few thousand of the country's 3 million licensed drivers. At many truck stops, rigs sit unattended in lots.

"We have to consider the trucking industry as a potential target to be misused in a terrorist attack," said George A. Rodriguez, director of cargo security for the Transportation Security Administration.

Congress set tough deadlines and provided billions of dollars to enhance airline security, but except for $500,000 a year for the industry's driver-training course, little money has flowed to secure the most dangerous trucks, even though nearly 800,000 loads of hazardous cargo move on U.S. highways daily. Federal action has also been delayed by bureaucratic tangles at the Transportation Department, which has been trying to impose domestic-security duties on divisions dealing with truck safety and hazardous materials management, department officials say. Regulations on truck safety and security equipment are many months away, they say.

An array of experts and industry people, including some truckers who haul the hazardous loads, say it is just a matter of time before a deadly load is snatched and put to devastating use.

"A tractor-trailer with the right cargo offers a horrendous weapon," said Richard W. Carr, the vice president for safety and risk management at Quality Distribution Inc., a Tampa, Fla., company. The company has the country's largest tank-truck fleet, more than 3,200 vehicles in all.

About 50,000 trips are made each day by gasoline tankers, many of which hold as much fuel as a Boeing 757. Many of the depots where they fill up are unattended, dispensing fuel with the stroke of a driver's card. Trips often end with a late-night delivery to a deserted gas station.

Experts say that chemicals present an even greater risk, particularly those such as chlorine or cyanide, which can form clouds of deadly fumes.

The clearest vulnerability, experts agree, comes when trucks are stopped. To avoid long layovers, some companies have begun using crews of two drivers or setting up relays in which one driver turns a load over to another without pause.

But glaring vulnerabilities remain all along transportation corridors. A lack of secure parking areas causes many drivers to seek quiet side streets, vacant mall lots or highway ramps as a place to rest.

In May, the Trucking Security Working Group, representing everything from moving companies to the country's 1,100 private truck stops, began a campaign to train drivers how to recognize the rehearsals or reconnaissance that terrorists undertake before an attack.

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