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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government will launch background checks next week on the nation's 3.5 million truckers who haul hazardous goods, part of an effort to prevent terrorist attacks.
Truckers' groups are concerned people will lose their jobs because they did something years ago that disqualifies them from hauling dangerous materials.
Rob Black, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, gave the example of an 18-year-old convicted of a minor drug offense.
"He ends up straightening out, gets a job as a truck driver, it's 4 to 5 years later, he's turned himself around, he's got a job, but he's now at risk," Black said.
The checks are required by the Patriot Act passed by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks. Certain felons -- including those convicted of possession of a controlled substance within the last seven years -- no longer may drive trucks with hazardous materials. The same applies to anyone who has been judged mentally incompetent and illegal immigrants .
The Transportation Security Administration will be checking state and federal records to determine which truckers fall into those categories. Those who do will lose their licenses to haul hazardous materials, though they may keep their commercial licenses.
Drivers may appeal and obtain waivers.
"Our intent is not to put anyone out of work," Turmail said.
Every driver will eventually have to submit a fingerprint.
There have been two terrorist attacks on U.S. soil involving truck bombs: the World Trade Center in 1993 and Oklahoma City in 1995. A year ago, the Transportation Department's inspector general said safeguards are lacking to prevent terrorists from getting licenses to haul dangerous substances they could use in an attack.
Rich Moskowitz, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, said background checks would not have prevented either bombing because the perpetrators used rental trucks and fertilizer and didn't need special licenses.
The trucking group is concerned that state and federal authorities are not required to inform employers if drivers don't pass the background checks, Moskowitz said, leaving companies vulnerable if employees disclose a failure to pass to their bosses.
"If they self-disclose, we face a potential wrongful termination suit," Moskowitz said. "If they self-disclose and we keep them on and they're involved in an incident, we face an action of negligent hiring."
Joan Claybrook, who headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during the Carter administration, said it's about time the rule was issued. "It's critically important for highway safety as well as terrorism," Claybrook said.
Trucks carry 94 percent of the 800,000 shipments of hazardous materials in the United States every day. There are 60,000 materials considered hazardous, from nail polish to nuclear waste, though gasoline and corrosives are the most common.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)