Truckers Being Trained to Watch for Possible Terrorism Activity

Homeland Security initiative puts commercial drives on terrorism behavior alert


DENVER, Colo. -- Curtis Johnson isn't just delivering goods when he drives his semitrailer across the United States -- he also is looking for potential terrorist activity.

The driver for Denver-based Voyager Express volunteered for training and certification in Highway Watch, a program activated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to report unusual activity on the country's highways.

"Before 9/11, everybody went around saying, 'It won't happen to us," Johnson said recently as he pulled a trailer loaded with cardboard boxes from Golden to Fort Morgan. "Now, we don't want it to happen again."

Highway Watch began in 1998 as a safety program for truckers. An informal security component was added after Sept. 11, 2001.

The newest phase, which began in March with a $19.3 million federal grant, gives participants an identification number and access to a national hot line that can dispatch emergency responders and compile a database to track and analyze reports. Another $21 million has been allocated for 2005.

The program has more than 15,000 participants nationwide. Its national reporting center in Herndon, Va., reports an average of 200 calls per month, about 10 percent being security-related, said Mike Russell, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, which administers the program under contract with the Department of Homeland Security.

Participation is voluntary, and many truckers embrace the chance to pitch in.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a more patriotic bunch of workers," Russell said.

In Colorado, the program started largely with commercial truck drivers and was orchestrated by the Colorado Motor Carriers Association. It since has expanded to include other transportation and law enforcement sectors, including school bus drivers and newspaper delivery drivers.

Since training started in September, about 100 people in Colorado have gone through the two-hour program. Several more sessions across the state are scheduled before the end of the year.

During a recent training, 11 Voyager Express drivers worked with instructor Val Eagal.

"We want to use you guys as the eyes and ears of homeland security," Eagal said. "We want you to report suspicious behavior -- and there's a whole lot of it going on."

He urged them to consider how the highway system could become a target and how they and their rigs could be turned into weapons. He showed pictures of Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh.

"So what do terrorists look like?" he asked. "The bottom line is, they can look like anyone. What we're profiling is behavior. Not race, sex or age, only behavior."