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Truckers Add Vigilance to Their Load

Security: With fears that terrorists might use a commercial vehicle for an attack, drivers turn their cabs into rolling watchtowers.


PLANT CITY, Fla. — Ricochet picks up his head and looks around.

The Steak N Shake is deserted.

A waitress with a bob haircut and blank eyes slouches against a window, watching the rigs chug out of the parking lot. A sad country song leaks out of a pair of speakers: "She's actin' single, I'm drinkin' doubles. . . ."

Ricochet could be anywhere, for there is an unmistakable homogeneity to life on the big road.

But these days the drill is a little different. The terrorist attacks have changed things here too.

Before he mopped the last bits of turkey club sandwich off his chin and took a final swig of Coke, Ricochet (the name on his driver's license is Danny Barnhill, but everyone calls him Ricochet because "I'm always either coming or going") shot a glance at an unshaven man standing by the door.

"You never know who might be passing through these truck stops," he said. "I'm just taking a picture, wherever I go."

Since Sept. 11, there's a new watchfulness over America's byways--and it's not just police providing the eyes. Professional truck drivers are a patriotic bunch to begin with. And in the wake of the terrorist attacks, many have appointed themselves guardians of the road.

From shuddering cabs that have become mobile watchtowers, thundering down highways and back roads all day and all night, drivers are on the lookout for anything suspicious, alerting one another and radioing in tips.

"We've gotten a lot of solid information from these guys," said Kenny Morris, a lieutenant with Florida's Motor Carrier Compliance Office, which oversees trucking. "They know the roads."

Hard-edged truckers are even resisting--although it's difficult--the urge to warn one another over the CB where patrol cars are located.

"Let's say somebody takes my truck," said a semi driver who goes by the CB handle of Slic. "We don't want them to know where the Smokies are, 'cause then they might be able to get away."

That would be difficult these days. There are more cops cruising the 42,795 miles of U.S. interstate than ever before. There are also more roadside spot checks, more weigh stations staying open in the middle of the night for cargo inspections, and more scrutiny of hazardous material trucks--deemed the greatest security threat on wheels.

To be sure, the trucking world hasn't been turned upside-down like the U.S. airport system. But a recent two-day interstate trip with Ricochet, a 48-year-old man of the road, lent further proof of how workaday people are recalibrating their lives to deal with terrorism.

"See," he said, pulling up to a line of 21 trucks parked grille to grille one night at a north Florida truck stop. "Before 9 / 11, they'd be all spread out because they thought it was safer to sleep that way. Now they park together, like a pack."

The 960-mile round trip had begun on the loading dock of an Atlanta steel mill run by a pudgy guy named Hoppy. While a forklift wheeled 2,000-pound bundles onto the back of Ricochet's truck, he drifted into Hoppy's office to sign some papers.

"God bless America," someone had scribbled on a blackboard.

"Truckers are people who really believe in the red, white and blue," said Ricochet, who pilots his own rig out of Atlanta and has been driving for 28 years. "Everything in this country comes off a truck--your shirt, what you eat, the TV you turn on at night. America depends on us, and a lot of guys take that real seriously."

Two hundred miles down I-75, as the sun began to sink behind the hills and the sky was turning an inky blue, a white tractor-trailer zoomed past with a full-sized American flag flying from a pole welded to its bumper.

"Hey white truck. Whatcha doing with that flag?" Ricochet asked over the CB.

A deep, cotton-country voice shook the ceiling-mounted radio.

"I'm showing my colors, man. This is one of them turning-point times." It was Slic, a 35-year-old driver and former Marine. He was on his way from Atlanta to central Florida, hauling a couple thousand gallons of detergent.

Over the CB, Slic shared some feelings.

"I used to never worry when I left home, not even a thought," Slic said. "Now I got a little lady I'm engaged to, and a young boy, and I have to tell them: 'I don't know what's going to happen out there today, so never forget I love you.' "

Before he could say anything else, a pumped-up driver named Drive Shaft cut in:

"Semper fi, man! . . . I was in the Corps too."

He and Slic picked apart the military strategy in Afghanistan for a few minutes before pulling off the interstate to grab a cup of coffee together.

During another stop on I-75, patrons at the Chuckwagon Grill in Jackson, Ga.--where the specialty is Salisbury steak and "jumbo loaded baked potato"--were of two minds about new security rules along the highway.

Bryan Atwell, a 28-year-old hazardous material driver, was fed up.

"Yeah, so what if I'm hauling ether? They don't have to pull me over twice in every state," he said. "I used to be able to make it to Houston in a day. Now I got to stop."

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