Truck drivers aid officials in combatting terrorism

By Emily Sokolik

Truck drivers in Illinois are helping the state to combat the threat of terrorism.

More than 16,000 truckers are part of the Illinois Highway Watch program, a national homeland security effort aimed at training truck drivers to spot suspicious activity on state roadways.

“Homeland security begins at home,” said Mike Chamness, chairman of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force. “The Highway Watch is a good example of the role that citizens can take in protecting our state and our country.”

The Illinois Terrorism Task Force is responsible for assuring that Illinois is prepared to respond to an act of terrorism.

The Task Force joined with the Illinois Trucking Association and the Midwest Trucking Association in March 2004 to begin enlisting drivers to serve in the Highway Watch program.

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Since then, thousands of people have undergone training to recognize potential terrorist activity.

The training program is facilitated by the Illinois Department of Transportation and takes two to three hours to complete, said Mike Claffey, Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman. Truck drivers, as well as school bus drivers and state highway workers, undergo online instruction to sharpen observational skills and to learn how to report security concerns to law enforcement through a nationwide hotline.

The effort specifically seeks to prevent terrorists from using large vehicles with hazardous cargo as weapons on Illinois highways, Claffey said.

“Drivers know what to look out for, what looks normal and what looks abnormal,” he said. “They’re out there at all times, day and night, in good weather and in bad.”

The Sept. 11 attacks pushed airport security to the forefront of the national terrorism agenda, but Claffey said the nation’s roadways should also be a high priority.

“It’s how people get to and from work, it’s how goods are transported and it provides access to locations that make the economy thrive,” he said. “If anyone is up to no good, they’re going to have to be moving somehow.”

In addition to spotting terrorist activity, drivers assist in reporting routine types of traffic safety problems. Illinois Department of Transportation operates primarily in Chicago and relies on truck drivers to help prevent roadway emergencies in other parts of the state.

“The industry has worked as a partner to provide an extra set of eyes and ears for authorities on the state’s roadways,” said Don Schaefer, executive director of the Midwest Trucking Association in a press release.

While no driver has ever foiled a terrorism plot, Claffey said he has noticed that Illinois truck drivers are still eager to aid law enforcement officials.

“They’re an all-American bunch of folks,” he said. “They care a lot about our country and protecting the homeland. We want to harness that patriotism.”

The Highway Watch program

is a public/private partnership designed to:

Improve Safety and Security

Reducing the number of highway accidents,serious injuries and deaths

Reducing police and public safety response times to highway emergencies

Identifying unsafe drivers, drunk driving and road rage

Summoning help for stranded motorists

Alerting transportation authorities and the public at large to hazardous or changing road conditions

Enhancing safety and security at rest stops

Promote Image

Increasing the positive visibility of truck drivers on the highways and gaining the support of the media and all motorists

Create Partnerships

Coordinating with other safety intiatives, government officials and individuals who care about public safety

Disseminate Information

Distributing Highway Watch report information and statistics to interested government and industry officials for use in highway safety education and prevention programs

Source: Illinois Department of Transportation