Fingerprint checks for truckers called too costly

Industry executives ask lawmakers to consider less burdensome system.

Trucking executives on Tuesday urged Congress to modify security regulations that require drivers carrying hazardous materials to undergo background checks.

The House Homeland Security Committee is considering changes to the 2002 anti-terrorism law known as the USA PATRIOT Act, and the changes include the trucking regulations. A spokesman said if legislative changes are needed immediately, the panel would address the issue this year, but with limited time to act, the changes could be pushed to next year.

In 2003, the Transportation Security Administration initially ran background checks on the names of commercial drivers seeking hazardous-materials but then expanded the regulation to also running fingerprints through law enforcement databases.

Trucking industry representatives on Tuesday said the fingerprint system is burdensome and costly, according to prepared testimony before the House Homeland Security Economic Security, Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity Subcommittee. The current regulations apply to 2.7 million drivers -- more than two-thirds of the estimated commercial truck drivers.

"There must be a better way of identifying a smaller population of truckers that must go through a background check, or at least exempting a significant part of the population where there is little if any chance of finding potential terrorists," said Michael Laizure, a member of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

Laizure said the "chief complaints" are the shortage of facilities, available times and amount of time to undergo the background check and the "substantial out-of-pocket costs and lost revenue."

Stephen Russell, chairman and CEO of Celadon Group, who testified on behalf of the American Trucking Association, called lawmakers' attention to the fees for background checks. They vary from $94 to $133, depending on whether drivers are in a state that opted to use the TSA contractor for fingerprint collection. Drivers lose an estimated $200 a day in revenue because of the fingerprint system, according to Russell.

Russell said companies are losing hazardous-materials drivers because of the regulations. He urged a return to name-only background checks and to limiting the requirement to materials that could be used for weapons of mass destruction.

"A misconception of what constitutes hazmat seems to be at the heart of the problem," Russell said. "A number of everyday commodities such as paint, perfume, nail polish, soft-drink syrup, batteries and matches are considered hazmat. ... These products do not represent any more of a threat to our homeland than carrying a truckload of bread."

Bush administration officials said in their testimony that the government understands the need for modifying the system but said Congress must work with federal, state and local officials before implementing changes.

Robert McGuire, the Transportation Department official responsible for hazardous-materials regulations, said lawmakers must consider various combinations of relatively low-risk materials that could result in substantial death or damage to the environment. He said new rules could require costly revisions to the information technology systems of state governments.

McGuire said states have completed major revisions to implement the initial requirements and are preparing to implement new laws under a federal act requiring changes to all driver's licenses.