Team of U.S. road mavens watches out for terrorists

Pam Zubeck and Pam Zubeck

COLORADO SPRINGS – Ten foreigners showed up together at a truck-driving school in the upper Midwest to verify their safety and driving skills.

The instructor grew suspicious when they didn’t know much about driving trucks. He investigated and couldn’t verify their commercial driver’s licenses and home addresses.

The instructor reported the inconsistencies to authorities, who determined that all were illegal immigrants and some were on a terrorist watch list. The FBI won’t say whether the men were detained and when the incident happened, pending an investigation.

But the incident is Highway Watch at its finest.

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.

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

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, Willard said.

Highway Watch, which sharpens drivers’ skills of observation and detection of suspicious activities and road hazards, was based on a program set up in Colorado in 1998. The new program has been revamped to include alerts of potential terrorist activity.

The free one-hour class, taught by an instructor or by using a video, trains people to recognize uncommon signs that might signal terrorists at work.

Willard said 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.