California proposes secret weapon to halt trucks
California officials recently revealed they have been quietly working on a secret weapon they hope will prevent terrorists from using a truck as a rolling bomb. The proposed weapon, however, could pose many other problems on the road, say industry experts.

Since September 11, law enforcement and transportation officials across the country have been examining ways to minimize the threat of terrorists gaining possession of a rig to launch attacks on America’s highways. The effort is particularly intense in California, where tens of thousands of trucks travel along highways and roads each day.

In an effort to reduce the likelihood of at least one kind of attack, the California Highway Patrol believes it may have found an answer that would allow pursuing police officers to activate a device by “tapping” a fleeing tractor-trailer or tanker from behind to bring the rig to a screeching halt.

The system, which is being tested for the highway patrol by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA, activates the truck’s air brakes when a horizontal metal bar running across the rear end of the trailer at bumper level is “nudged” by a pursuing vehicle. The force of the impact sends knife-edged washers placed on the inside of the metal bar through the air hose to the brake, quickly stopping the rig. Developers say it also could be configured to be triggered remotely with a radio or telephone signal.

Several issues remain to be ironed out, including which trucks would have the device installed and how to make sure it is only accessible for police use.

Dwight “Spike” Helmick, commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, is reportedly “very encouraged” by what he has seen in trials. His department is spending $350,000 a day monitoring truck security.

OOIDA Vice President Todd Spencer was flabbergasted by such an idea being pursued in California. “While I think it’s appropriate to carefully consider all options to prevent terrorism, this one likely wouldn’t get very high up on the priority list with most truckers,” says Spencer. “Can you imagine being the police officer edging up to a trailer at highway speeds trying to tap the bumper knowing that when he does the truck’s brakes will lock with the patrol car inches from the back of the trailer? I wouldn’t want to be that cop. And if you actually could tap the brakes with a car’s bumper and avoid causing an accident, I wouldn’t want to be the truckdriver who was shut down this way.”

Spencer pointed out such a device also could be used for purposes not intended by its developers. “How many armed thieves would see this as an easy way to stop a truck to rob the driver?” While high-tech solutions may generate enthusiasm, Spencer says there are low-tech solutions that would provide benefits that go well beyond security.

“I know it sounds crazy, but if trucking companies would start recruiting and hiring the best people in our society and change the way they view, compensate and treat those drivers, they would have dedicated workers willing to spend decades — even their entire career — with the same carrier,” he says. “Would you have more trust for a 20-year employee or one that has been with the company only a few months and is likely to be gone at any time? This applies to national security as much as it does highway safety. Companies that go through lots of drivers are far more likely to hire drivers with problems.”

David Longo, a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said even if the device was required to be installed on trucks licensed in the state, California could not require it on thousands of trucks crossing state lines. Longo says he understands law enforcement is trying to investigate all possibilities to reduce the risk of an attack using trucks, but he said he does not believe this particular device is feasible.

Longo’s sentiment was shared by David McCallen, director of the lab’s Center for Complex Distributed Systems. “It’s almost like bumper cars,” said McCallen. “(Law enforcement) doesn’t have a lot of good options.”

— Keith Goble