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End of the line?

THE 49TH PARALLEL - As the world is plunged headlong over the razor-sharp edge of war, trucking is left staring over a crag only slightly less precarious and potentially just as fatal, financially spe...





THE 49TH PARALLEL – As the world is plunged headlong over the razor-sharp edge of war, trucking is left staring over a crag only slightly less precarious and potentially just as fatal, financially speaking.

Between snarled border crossings and a general lack of consumer confidence – south of the line in particular – the industry driving North America’s economy has been the first to experience the ‘ripple effect’ from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the U.S.

The plight of truckers was again worsened when investigators established a clear link between the industry and terrorist activity.

Possible truck attack

FBI agents thwarted a terrorist plot to use big rigs to blow up the tallest building in the U.S., the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Based on evidence seized from several men arrested across the Midwest, federal investigators believe they successfully disrupted a terrorist cell planning a possible truck bomb attack on the 110-story skyscraper.

Five individuals were taken into custody: three in Detroit, one in Iowa and one in Chicago. At least four of the five men had fraudulently obtained hazardous materials trucking licences.

It was unclear as to when the possible attack on the Sears Tower was slated to occur.

“We believe that there is the likelihood of additional terrorist activity and it is our job to do whatever we can to interrupt it, to disrupt it,” says U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. He adds federal authorities have so far arrested or detained more than 500 people in connection with its terrorism investigation.

Investigators maintain Osama bin Laden is the one fueling the increased terrorist activity and suggest he has approximately 3,000 dedicated followers around the world willing to die in support of his underground network, al Qaeda.

Hazardous situation

Although the existence of these phony HazMat licences doesn’t prove trucks would be used as the delivery method for a subsequent attack, an FBI memo to the American Trucking Associations (ATA) warns of previous threats along these lines.

The memo warns about the, “use of chemical, biological and/or radiological/nuclear WMD (weapons of mass destruction).” It also asked the ATA to make truckers aware of the situation and keep an eye open for suspicious behavior.

For Canadian truckers, this is a frightening prospect given the relatively lax policing of HazMat licensing.

“U.S. agencies are going nuts stopping hazardous goods tankers looking for falsified licences when in Canada it’s a joke,” complains one trucker who asked to remain nameless. “I had two different operations managers sign over three-year licences to me in their office without a lick of anything. Nefarious bad guys could easily get a Canadian dangerous goods licence and wreak havoc.”

For Dave Bennison, a trucker with Challenger, the real danger remains south of the border.

“It would be easy to get a fake HazMat licence in the U.S.,” says the trucker who regularly delivers to New York City. “At the truck stops, that kind of thing isn’t right in your face, but you know it’s there just under the surface.”

O/O group nervous

The Owner/Operator Independent Driver Association (OOIDA) says while the lack of security at truck terminals is cause for concern, the worry should be from the normal practices of many U.S. trucking companies today.

“In their quest to find warm bodies to fill truck seats, far too many trucking companies have all but abandoned hiring and employment practices that would sustain a stable, reliable and a safety and security-minded workforce,” says the owner/op group. “There is nothing that would stop a person from easily and quickly fulfilling whatever anti-U.S. goals they may have … an open invitation exists for coordinated plans for mayhem in cities throughout the U.S. using trucks as the weapon.”

Traffic slows with security

These facts haven’t escaped Customs and Immigration officials as the border was again on high alert following retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan by the U.S.

The result was a repeat of traffic delays at Customs locations, mirroring Sept.11-14, although the effects were far less severe.

The traffic congestion resulted from increased security at border crossings all across Canada.

At the Niagara Falls and Fort Erie border crossings between New York and Ontario, identification papers were required from people travelling in either direction. Truckers heading into the U.S. endured waits of 40 to 90 minutes.

Seeking respect

Cross-border drivers aren’t the only ones getting hassled these days, mind you. Visible minorities have been wrongly assumed to be terrorists and it’s a situation the Sikh community is hoping to reverse.

According to Manjit Singh, director of the Canadian Sikh Council and the Sikh chaplain at the University of McGill, truckers are mistakenly venting their anger at the terrorist offensive at their co-workers of the Sikh religion.

“There was the case of a fellow from Brampton who wears a turban and maintains a long flowing beard,” says Singh. The man had his beard pulled by another trucker, “out of frustration and ignorance.”

He says there are many differences between Sikhs and supporters of the Taliban.

“Sikhs wear colorful turbans, like blue, red or brown, and the Taliban wear only black,” says Singh. “Even though we both keep long beards, Taliban members trim their moustaches and Sikhs don’t.”

Fleets feel crunch

Fleets have faced more than a few headaches of late and the initial days following the terrorist attacks are now showing up on balance sheets across the country.

“For the week after our freight volumes were down to 30 per cent of normal due to the closures at the border,” says Ray Haight, president and chief operating officer of MacKinnon Transport. The irregular-route carrier estimates its traffic will be off by 20 per cent for the month of September. “You simply can’t compensate for a week with no freight moving.”

Trucking takes centre stage

It may not be the kind of attention it normally seeks, but the industry is getting a long look from lawmakers and budget-setters, and it couldn’t have come soon enough for David Bradley, chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

“There is no silver lining (to the recent events of the world),” says Bradley. “Notwithstanding, I still am optimistic in the long-term we will resolve some of the long-standing issues we have had at the border.”

Delays at the border are nothing new, but in the past the U.S. has lacked the political will to speed the congestion.

“In Canada we always had a different philosophy with regards to national security and at times we felt that the Americans were too fixated on national security and this impeded efficiency,” adds Bradley. “But I think anybody that may have had those views obviously, I’m sure, had a change of heart given what has happened.”

Prior to Sept. 11, Canadians were already discussing the idea of a Fortress North America. In its optimal stage, the border between Canada and the U.S. would become invisible and both countries would harmonize various policies and procedures for addressing the threat from outside the continent.

“There has to be some sort of pre-screening where those carriers, those drivers who met whatever criteria are set are able to operate more freely across the border.”

Power for protection

These types of improvements, however, may be tied to form of immigration reform to meet U.S. standards. And that’s a bridge many Canadian officials sound reluctant to cross.

“I don’t think Canadians are prepared to say that Washington can dictate our policies for who comes into Canada,” says federal Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley.

Manley’s comments were in stark contrast to a recent survey conducted in part by the Globe and Mail. The poll suggests 81 per cent of Canadians think Canada and the U.S. should adopt “common entry controls.”


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