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The cargo security initiatives emanating from the customs and security branches of the U.S. government since 9-11 raise a critical question for Canadian motor carriers: To what extent should they be e...

The cargo security initiatives emanating from the customs and security branches of the U.S. government since 9-11 raise a critical question for Canadian motor carriers: To what extent should they be expected to shoulder the burden for what essentially are matters of international security?

The U.S. government is reaching a critical stage in determining how to prevent the events of 9-11 from being repeated. There are distinct signs from Washington that it’s looking to take a harder line in securing its borders. President George W. Bush made it clear in his recent State of the Union address that the U.S. is prepared to become less dependent on imports from foreign countries if necessary. And the recently announced proposals for advance submission of cargo data to U.S. Customs may well have that effect.

The plan would require the electronic submission of cargo data to U.S. Customs 4 hours before a truck is loaded in Canada for shipment to the U.S. It’s a plan that has left both Canadian shippers and carriers deeply concerned about the future of just-in-time inventory systems and trade between Canada and the U.S.

Members of the trucking community may bristle every time a politician or bureaucrat suggests such measures are warranted because the just-in-time and warehousing-on-wheels concepts that drive key sectors of the North American economy also expose us to extreme danger at the hands of terrorists – the famed “nuke in the box” scenario. But we should not ignore the reality that until the continental trade system, most of which is reliant on truck transport, is truly secure from terrorist activity, it remains vulnerable to a shutdown by political measures. And those measures, it is important to note, will be driven and supported by a U.S. public that will always place safety ahead of economic concerns.

This is not the time to lament the treatment of our industry at the hands of misinformed or uncaring U.S. politicians and bureaucrats. This is the time to put extra effort into understanding the political pressures and realities driving these decisions from Washington.

To start, Washington has not singled out trucking. Marine carriers were the first hit. As of October 2, they’ve had to transmit Customs manifest information 24 hours in advance for vessels loading in their home port and destined for U.S. ports. And U.S. Customs is proposing that air carriers report cargo data 12 hours in advance of the aircraft being loaded while carriers of expedited air cargo report data 8 hours prior to the aircraft being loaded – rules certain to ruin expedited air transport into the U.S.

The political situation in Washington must also be taken into account. The initial groundswell of support for President Bush after 9-11 is evaporating. The Democrats are signaling that in 2004 they will attack Bush for being soft on terrorism, an indication that they see concerns over security as a key election issue. The core ability of the U.S. government to protect its people is being called into question and if the Bush administration sees itself wanting on that score, it may go to extreme measures to restore its legitimacy.

But this is not the time to circle the wagons.

Until now I have advised staying on top of the quickly changing security debate as a way to ensure the industry’s interests are not trampled. That won’t do it anymore. Rather than waiting for government dictates, this is the time for the industry to show leadership in establishing a verifiable and economically viable way for preventing weapons of mass destruction from infiltrating our trade system.

Whether it’s taking the lead on technological innovation such as electronic trailer seals, as Qualcomm is doing, or going to Customs with a pre-notification plan that will address both trade and security, the reality is the industry, provided it can speak with a unified voice, is better equipped to come up with a working solution.

Expecting the trucking industry to lead the way in matters of international security may be a bold step. But if the transborder trade system is shut down by either terrorist action or by politicians fearful that the industry is vulnerable to such action, no one will be harder hit than those whose entire livelihood depends on that system.

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