Background checks MIA

A few months ago I achieved two major milestones in my life: I celebrated (somewhat hesitantly) my 55th birthday and traveled overseas for the first time. It was the circumstances surrounding them, however, that brought to my attention something that concerns me deeply about our industry and national security. Coinciding with my birthday was the expiration of my Commercial Driver's License (CDL),

A few months ago I achieved two major milestones in my life: I celebrated (somewhat hesitantly) my 55th birthday and traveled overseas for the first time. It was the circumstances surrounding them, however, that brought to my attention something that concerns me deeply about our industry and national security.

Coinciding with my birthday was the expiration of my Commercial Driver's License (CDL), which I wanted to renew to support client-requested driver training activities. I had been anticipating this event with some degree of trepidation for a few reasons.

First, my CDL carries a hazardous-materials endorsement, so I knew I'd have to brush up on this topic for the test.

Second, I assumed my licensing state had implemented the “background investigation” provisions included in the 2001 Patriot Act. After all, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had finalized the required background check procedures last May.

In preparation for the big day, I began reviewing the required hazardous-materials information, as well as looking at state guidelines for driver background checks.

I quickly discovered that the background check “requirements” varied widely from state to state. For example, one state indicated that all renewing hazmat drivers would have to submit to a background check by TSA to verify that they: (a) were U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents; (b) had no disqualifying criminal offenses; (c) had not judged mentally incompetent or committed to a mental institution; and (d) had not been assessed by TSA as posing a threat of terrorism, a threat to national security, or to transportation security

Other states indicated that I would have to be fingerprinted, as well as pay $50 to $100 to defray the additional background investigation costs.

On the appointed day, I went to the DMV early, expecting a three to four hour wait or, more realistically, to be sent home with a temporary license until my background check cleared.

To my surprise, I received my new Hazmat CDL within 30 minutes. And it's valid through September of 2008.

It took just under a half hour for a clerk to review my current physical exam data, assign me to a computer for the knowledge test, check my vision, take a fresh mug shot, and hand me the new license.

“What about the background check?” I asked, somewhat incredulously. Her reply: “Oh that stuff. It's been put on hold until further notice. We've been told that TSA notified the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators that it was delaying the process because too many details had to be worked out.”

So I left with a Hazmat CDL that's valid for another five years — but without a background check.

Just two weeks later — on the second anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks — I took an international flight that subjected me to scrutiny an order of magnitude greater than my CDL renewal process. Inquiries included baggage checks, passport examination, and questions from Customs officials such as “Where will you be staying?” “What is the business reason for your entering our country?” and “Can you provide us with a phone number for the business office where you'll be working?”

The airlines and Customs Offices seem to have put their security measures in place. It seems odd that we can't provide the resources and procedures necessary to ensure that Hazmat CDLs are issued only to those who do not pose a security risk. Must be that we don't see the imminent threat posed by a hijacked load of chemicals, flammables or poisons.

I wonder just how many of the other 3-million people with Hazmat CDLs will skate through the renewal process and receive certification to drive for another five years — without any kind of background check?




Jim York is the manager of Zurich North America's Risk Engineering Team, based in Schaumburg, IL.

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