Why 100% scanning of containers is 100% wrong

If you think congestion can make picking up containers at our international ports a real hassle now, wait till July 1, 2012.
That’s when the US wants to have its scan-all legislation in effect. The legislation decrees that as of July 1, 2012 “a container that was loaded on a vessel in a foreign port shall not enter the United States (either directly or via a foreign port) unless the container was scanned by non-intrusive imaging equipment and radiation-detection equipment at a foreign port before it was loaded on a vessel.”
We already have the prospect of worsening congestion in many of the world’s container ports as volumes grow year on year, Vancouver being an excellent case in point. As Nicolette van der Jagt, Secretary General of the European Shippers’ Council commented about the new US initiative: “One can only imagine the huge queues that will form when every container has to run through radiation and image scanners.’
All members of the Global Shippers Forum, have emphatically stated, the approach calling for 100% scanning will result in enormous costs to users, suppliers and ultimately consumers without accomplishing the very objective that the scan-all requirements are seeking to achieve. This view is shared not only by the members of the GSF, but it is the opinion of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, all major cargo organizations, shippers, the ocean carriers, the European Commission, and the governments of America’s trading partners including- Canada, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
How could the US push through legislation that even its own security agencies won’t buy into?
The impact 9/11 has had on the American psyche can’t be underestimated. The transportation community’s strong belief that security and efficient flow of trade must remain of equal importance is under constant threat by a fearful public that doesn’t bother to think through all the ramifications of over zealous security policy and politicians willing to take advantage of the public’s fears to score points, particularly just before an election. The US Democrats may be guilty of this latest attempt to break the necessary balance between trade and security in their desire to position themselves as tougher in dealing with the terrorist threat than the Republicans for the 2008 election, but they’re just following a well-established pattern set down by the Bush administration.
But the potential impact on trade AND security of such ill-advised legislation also can’t be underestimated.
Personally, I would not object to the US trying to dictate supply chain security if there was good reason to believe they really knew what they were talking about. Avoiding another 9/11 trumps national pride in my books. But this legislation is based on the premise that in five years scanning technology will have advanced to the point that scanning all containers would not slow the flow of commerce to a halt. Currently, there is no scanner that can do the job the new law demands. In other words, the US is hoping that future technology will provide the magic bullet. I hope the money they are sure to invest in developing such technology proves worthwhile but the problem is you can’t legislate technological breakthroughs.
And, as the GSF and others point out, chasing after this single-layer “magic bullet” will divert vital funding and focus away from the current multi-layered approach to security that most experts believe is the most effective. US partisan politics before an election year may very well create more costly and congested global trade and, in the worst case scenario, set the stage for another successful terrorist attack on US soil.

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With more than 25 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics.

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