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Eyes on the road: Highway Watch

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I grew suspicious when they didn’t seem to know much about driving trucks.

The instructor reported this to law enforcement personnel, who determined that all were illegal immigrants and some were even on a terrorist watch list.  Authorities will not reveal further details of the case, but it does portray Highway Watch at work.

Highway Watch is the roadway sector's national safety and security program that utilizes the skills, experiences, and "road smarts" of America's transportation workers to help protect the nation's critical infrastructure and the transportation of goods, services, and people.

Highway Watch is administered by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) under a Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Roadway transportation sector professionals are welcome to join Highway Watch.

Highway Watch participants - transportation infrastructure workers, commercial and public truck and bus drivers, in addition to other highway sector professionals - are specially trained to recognize potential safety and security threats and avoid becoming a target of terrorists. The Highway Watch effort seeks to prevent terrorists from using large vehicles or hazardous cargoes as weapons.

Highway Watch began in 1998 as a safety program but turned to national security after Sept. 11, 2001.

The Department of Homeland Security program, which has trained 180,000 truck drivers, generates roughly 350 reports a month from drivers about everything from road hazards to suspicious activity, like the truck-driving students.

Terry O'Connell is a 16-year expediting owner-operator who became aware of the Highway Watch Program while listening to a trucking radio show.

O'Connell, a Coast Guard veteran, has a history of service to his country and finds the program to be yet another way in which he can contribute.

"When I first heard about Highway Watch, I felt that it's something I should be involved in, being a commercial driver with a hazardous materials endorsement on my license. During my Coast Guard career, I was frequently involved in hazardous materials cleanup on navigable waters, so it seemed like a good fit."

O'Connell explains, "After all, truck drivers are the most likely of all to be around hazardous materials and we would recognize suspicious behavior before the general public would."

“The main goal is to ensure no commercial motor vehicle is ever used as a weapon. So far, so good,” says John Willard, Highway Watch Program spokesman with the American Trucking Association. 

The trade group administers the program for the federal government, which allocated $19.3 million in 2004 and an additional $21 million this year. Next year’s budget is down sharply to $4.8 million because the program has money left from this year.

There are not enough police and federal agents to protect all of America, but transportation workers can act as a force multiplier. Trucking is a large and diverse industry with more than three million drivers -- a potential army of eyes and ears to monitor for security threats.

Truck drivers are already immersed in the language and business of safety – it is one of the primary concerns of their occupation. The road, weigh stations, truck stops, fueling centers and rest areas are their workplace, and they are very aware of suspicious activity and behavior, security threats, and unusual cargoes. Keeping watch is a daily activity for truck drivers.

Truck drivers can easily be trained to recognize particular hazards or identify unusual activity; e.g.: trucks hauling hazardous waste; suspicious CB radio traffic; curious requests from strangers; staged traffic crashes; etc.

Truck drivers are everywhere – ports, airports, malls, bridges, tunnels -- thus giving greater range to homeland security observation efforts.

Highway Watch is also a morale booster for drivers. "I don't want to sound too hokey, but truck drivers are a very patriotic bunch," says Mike Russell, a spokesman for the organization. "It made sense for us to take advantage of what they do every day — which is, basically, patrol major highways through a windshield."

To become a Highway Watch driver, all drivers must receive comprehensive training from law enforcement officers on what to look for on the highway, how emergencies should be reported, the appropriate numbers to call, safe and responsible wireless phone use and how the Highway Watch program coordinates with other emergency and highway personnel. A Highway Watch class, taught by an instructor or by using a video, trains people to recognize uncommon signs that might signal terrorists at work.

Upon completion of the training class, the participants are given a certificate and special I.D. number along with a specific toll-free number to call and report incidents. The call center takes an incident report and refers it to the proper authorities as determined by each individual state.

When drivers report what they see, such as a suspicious vehicle parked under an overpass, they know those taking the calls will get word to the proper authority.

Drivers’ reports are routed to a national Highway Watch call center. If it involves a road hazard or local issue, the information is passed to local authorities.

Reports of possible terrorist involvement go to the Highway Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC), a division of the Virginia-based Transportation Security Operations Center.

The Highway Information Sharing and Analysis Center (Highway ISAC) is a critical component to the Highway Watch effort and serves as the analytical and communications focal point for the Highway Watch program.

In close cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the Highway ISAC, a nationwide team of well-trained and experienced transportation security professionals collectively detect, assess, report, process, analyze, and respond to incidents which might post a threat to national security.

Highway Watch training provides Highway Watch participants with the observational tools and the opportunity to exercise their expert understand of the transportation environment to report safety and security concerns rapidly and accurately to the authorities. In addition to matters of homeland security - stranded vehicles or accidents, unsafe road conditions, and other safety related situations are reported eliciting the appropriate emergence responders. Highway Watch reports are combined with other information sources and shared both with federal agencies and the roadway transportation sector by the Highway ISAC.

Expediter O'Connell says, "I feel that the Highway Watch program is a very worthwhile initiative and  I would like to see more truck drivers and transportation workers become involved, including more carriers.  The more people who are trained means less risk for our country and I think it's incumbent upon all of us to be alert for unusual and suspicious behavior."

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