Eighteen wheels. . .tons of steel. . .tanks with thousands of gallons of flammables. . .trailers full of drums.

Truck drivers have always had a huge responsibility. Driving a rig on highways, across bridges, in tunnels, through communities, by churches and schools. . .these loads put millions of people at risk. Your hazmat shipment is now recognized as a potential weapon of destruction.

Soon after September 11, 2001, the Patriot rule was sent to DOT by President George W. Bush. Basically, it says that no one can get a hazmat endorsement unless that individual is certified as a responsible citizen. The hope is that people with terrorist ties won't be licensed to drive hazardous materials.

New issues

In addition to the usual responsibilities, post 9/11 drivers must be aware of safety and security issues we didn't consider before. There's personal security, for instance. Find out if your driver has been approached by a stranger expressing too much interest in hazmat transportation. Has the operator observed any unusual people or vehicles around home, place of business or along normal routes? Ask if co-workers exhibit questionable behavior regarding work or political ideas. If so, take these signs seriously and notify authorities.

Then, in addition to a thorough pre-trip inspection, your professional driver needs to check for anything unusual about the vehicle or the cargo. Are there any strange devices attached to the vehicle? If something is found, it is extremely important NOT to touch it because the device may be booby trapped or, at minimum, may contain explosives.

Checking the load is next. Post 9/11, it's more important than ever that the driver knows what's in the load, all its hazards and what to do in an emergency. Could this load be used as a weapon or destructive force?

Everyone is focusing a lot more on safety these days. Your driver needs to keep abreast of threat levels and details through his supervisor, DOT or proper authorities. For information on hazard assessment and threat evaluation, contact the FBI, DOT or state agencies.

Falling rocks

While the hazmat professional knows to find the safest, shortest route, for safety's sake he may alter the route when possible, and vary departure and arrival times. Operators need to check traffic reports, weather conditions and find out if road construction could delay the trip. If the load is prohibited on bridges, in tunnels or metropolitan areas, alternate routes must be selected before getting stuck in traffic hauling a hazardous load.

On the road, a professional driver knows to expect the unexpected. What if someone throws something into your lane? Does the operator swerve to miss it and lose control of the rig? Fluids in the tanker can slosh and cause a rollover. Then there are overpasses. People have been known to toss rocks and other things off onto traffic. Maybe something would go through the windshield. How would your driver handle a load shift? If pallets aren't secured, they can turn over or breach containers and cause a hazardous materials spill. How would the operator handle a leaking or venting trailer?

Better safe than sorry

A new concern is watching out for suspicious drivers. Is someone following? If a driver sees something suspicious, the CB radio or cell phone can be used to notify appropriate authorities. It's best to keep in motion on the highway since it's harder for someone to compromise the load and tractor. A professional never leaves the truck or cargo in an unsecured location.

Approaching a bridge or tunnel, the rig may be inspected. Tell your driver to cooperate with inspectors who are stationed at these points to make sure our highways, cities and families stay safe.

It's more important than ever that drivers never drive when sleepy. Urge them to follow hours of service limitations and stop if drowsiness creeps up. Urge your drivers never to pull off on the side of the road since parking on the shoulder is dangerous and in many states considered a "disregard of a traffic control device."

Even in a truck stop, drivers must be more watchful now. Awareness of surroundings and knowing whether another driver followed the rig into the truck stop is now required. Remind your driver to contact the dispatcher or appropriate authorities if someone asks too many questions about the load or destination. We are in a new era and extra care is mandated. Be sure your vehicle is parked in a well-lit, secure area.

Anytime the engine is left running at a truck stop or rest area, the cab must be secure and all anti-theft devices activated. Cargo theft is a real concern even if just unattended for a moment. When fueling, if the driver is at the passenger side tank, someone could jump in the rig and drive off. The fifth wheel lock can prevent someone from unhooking the trailer and driving off, or jumping in and driving off with the entire rig. This is one way the rig becomes a weapon causing an explosion, leaking, venting and affecting an entire community or large concentration of people. Every driver must be vigilant about the safety and location of the truck and its load.

Upon arrival

Your DOT-certified hazardous materials operator and shipper are partners, part of facility security when hazmat arrives at the designated area. At the destination drivers must be cautious. Is there a vehicle that should not be there? Does the guard at the gate look familiar? Is he the person who does regular inspections? Is he familiar with the process? If anyone or anything arouses suspicions, tell your driver to speak to the facility manager.

In our changing world, professional hazmat operators are important lines of defense against incidents or maybe even worse. Vigilance and good judgment are requirements. Our communities and our nation can no longer accept shortcuts to safety. Encourage your operators not to get complacent about following guidelines and maybe to incorporate some new ideas for special safety - potential situations your operator may not have thought about before.

SIDEBAR: 12 Rules of the Road

Remind your hazmat operators to:

  • Complete a thorough pre-trip inspection;
  • Check the load and hazards;
  • Read the MSDS;
  • Display correct placarding and markings;
  • Make sure shipping papers are filled out correctly;
  • Look at the map before setting out;
  • Establish "milestones" for checking in with the dispatcher or supervisor;
  • Diligently follow traffic laws;
  • Stop for inspections;
  • Be aware of other drivers since they're not always aware of you.
  • Be cautious and wary about surroundings and suspicious people or vehicles, on the road, at truck stops and at rest areas.
  • Deliver hazmat only when assured of safety.