Originally created 04/28/04

Georgia roads added to watch list



A program that began as a neighborhood watch on wheels and expanded into a training ground for spotting terrorists is soon coming to Georgia.

Highway Watch, founded by the American Trucking Associations, is designed to train highway professionals to identify and report safety and security concerns on roads.

Originally a way to teach truck drivers in Virginia and Pennsylvania to report unsafe driving, the program is expanding to the 31 states not currently involved - including Georgia - thanks to a $19 million grant from the federal government.

"We're thrilled the program is coming here," said Ed Crowell, of the Georgia Motor Trucking Association, which is heading the state's efforts. "It's going to be good for everyone on Georgia's roads."

Mr. Crowell said the group hopes to begin training Georgia professionals who work on roads - including road crew members, first responders and bus workers - in about two months. Potentially 80,000 to 100,000 people could then complete the training within the next 12 months.

"Even if we don't train that number, we will get a good chunk completed over the next year," he said.

Highway Watch was started in 1998 as a trucking-specific project, according to American Trucking Associations spokesman John Willard. The goal was always to make it nationwide, yet the program was initially small in scope.

Truck drivers learned to recognize wrecks and poor or drunken driving, which they called in to one of nearly 10 numbers depending on the situation.

When remembering all of those phone numbers became a problem, a central call center staffed with professionals who could handle all calls was added in 2002, Mr. Willard said.

Now workers who have undergone the training are given a trusted identification number to ensure their calls to the center are anonymous and to confirm to the person on the other line that they are involved with Highway Watch.

"It basically raises them above the background of the various calls that come in," said Jack Leglar, the vice president for Highway Watch.

As part of the program's expansion, information gathered will go to the national association's Informational Sharing and Analysis Center, staffed with security-cleared experts who will analyze the data and prepare bulletins and alerts for the public.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the focus of Highway Watch also has widened.

Once solely devoted to reporting on issues of safety, the program also now trains road workers to look for possible terrorist activity.

"We felt like it made sense to add an antiterrorism training component to standard training," Mr. Willard said.

This security portion became the impetus for the Transportation Security Administration to take interest in expanding Highway Watch, Mr. Crowell said.

An estimated 149 out of 150 calls coming in to the call center are about safety, not security, but the occasional calls do relate to suspicious activities with possible terrorism connections, Mr. Leglar said.

He explained that having highway workers responsible for calling in either type of complaint has worked well because of their familiarity with the goings on of the roads.

"The best person to know what's unusual is someone who works out there every day," Mr. Leglar said. "The combo of their expertise about the activities of the road and our teachings about how terrorists conduct their operations is a very powerful force."

Vernon Collins, the safety director of Augusta Air Cargo, said he thinks Highway Watch is a great idea.

"Everybody should be aware and notify someone if they see anything suspicious," he said.

Since he began working at the Augusta trucking company in October, Mr. Collins said, he has stressed safety precautions for his drivers, even requiring all 31 to complete related training.

"We have to be particular about who we take freight from and screen everything we ship out," he said.

Reach Dena Levitz at (706) 823-3339 or dena.levitz@augustachronicle.com.