Homework is key for smooth crossings

by Frank Condron

Canada and the United States may share the longest undefended border in the world, but crossing it is becoming an ever-growing challenge.

The main reason for the tightening bottleneck in recent years is simple enough: traffic. Currently, commercial vehicles cross the Canada/U.S. border at the rate of about one every three seconds, or about 10 million times a year.

As if the traffic weren’t enough to slow things down, the U.S. government has recently taken steps to tighten security at border crossings, in response to attempted crossings by suspected terrorists. The Clinton administration announced that it will post an additional 600 to 700 Customs officers along the border to meet the challenge.

If you do your homework, however, you can still ensure that your crossings are as smooth as possible.

Personal Considerations

Last April, Charlottetown trucker Darrin Perry was taking a load to the states and was concerned about a past criminal conviction. Just to be safe, he contacted the Charlottetown Police to ask them about his rights with regard to crossing the border. Perry says he was assured by the police that it was safe for him to go ahead. Wrong.

In the course of a routine check, the U.S. Border Patrol discovered Perry’s conviction and promptly arrested him. He spent nine days in a New England jail before U.S. Customs got everything straightened out and let him go home. Perry has since filed suit against the city for “misinforming him” about his rights.

The moral of the story: know your rights and legal obligations before you try to cross the border.

Also, have all the necessary personal identification ready. Canadians can usually enter the U.S. with a driver’s licence, a passport or a birth certificate. Landed immigrants must have proof of Canadian citizenship. But above all, be prepared. Telling a Cusoms official “I forgot it” works about as well as “the dog ate my homework.”

Your Truck

Don’t make the mistake of thinking the border is just a place to stop illegal immigrants and contraband. Border crossing points are a perfect place for transportation officials on both sides of the border to conduct safety spot checks on commercial vehicles.

Your Cargo

Take the time to know what you are hauling. Your ability to answer questions about cargo can help an official decide whether to inspect your load. “One of the biggest pet peeves of Border Patrol officers is not being able to hear the driver’s responses to questions because they have music on or the radio on,” adds Ben Anderson, chief inspector of the cargo facility on the U.S. side of the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, Mich.

Customs officers have the right to unload, unpack and open any piece of cargo on your truck, and it is the driver’s responsibility to remove any covers, tarps or straps to facilitate an inspection. It is a good idea, then, to pay attention to how your truck is loaded before you leave. In other words, if you make it easy for Customs officials to do their job, they will make it easier for you.

Some products are also subject to inspection by other government agencies – things like livestock, vegetables and dairy products. These agencies, however, may only conduct inspections at certain border crossing points during specific hours. Alcohol, tobacco and firearms, obviously, have their own set of restrictions. And if your cargo is bonded, it is your responsibility to see that the seals on the trailer remain intact throughout the journey.


Anderson has just one piece of advice to give drivers when they reach the border: “Be ready. Some drivers show up at the primary inspection booth still looking for their documents or with no documents at all. We are so busy now that we don’t have time to deal with delays in primary inspection.”

Today, most customs documents are transmitted electronically to the border long before the load arrives in a process called release on minimum documentation (RMD) or line release. The Pre-Arrival Review System is a prime example. Shippers and customs brokers using PARS fax or electronically transmit cargo information well in advance of a load. Upon arriving at the border, the driver turns over a bar-coded Cargo Control Document (CCD) that identifies the load and provides all relevant information. By that time, the bulk of the paperwork has already been processed.

A similar program is called the Frequent Importer Release System, or FIRST. FIRST is designed to deal with repetitive, low-risk shipments that don’t require inspection.

Finally, don’t underestimate the effect your attitude can have on a Customs officer. Remember, they are human beings too, and it is not their fault that there are hundreds of casino-bound little old ladies trying to get across the bridge at the same time you want to cross. A smile and a laugh could mean the difference between a quick wave on and a protracted inspection. n

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