By a Biometrica staffer
Early in 2015, Kevin Kimmel, a driver with Con-way Truckload, pulled into a truck stop in Virginia, hoping to catch some shut-eye. He happened to glance over at an RV and saw a “distraught-looking young girl” in the window. As he watched, a man approached the RV and went inside. Kimmel, trusting his gut, called it into the police.
When they arrived, law enforcement found the girl — a severely malnourished 20-year-old — who had been kidnapped two weeks earlier from Iowa by a couple who had physically and sexually abused her, and then forced her into prostitution. The couple were charged with sex trafficking and the girl was recovered.
Kevin’s is just one of countless stories in recent years that showcases the potential and the impact that commercial drivers can have in combating human trafficking — an idea that has been gaining recognition.
Human trafficking is widely considered to be a form of slavery, where people — mostly but not exclusively young girls and women — are traded like commodities for various purposes like manual labor, “working” as household servants, or being forced into commercial sex work. Per the International Labor Organisation, the “industry” makes around $150 billion a year for criminals, and it is estimated that there are more than 40 million people worldwide who are victims of human trafficking.
In the U.S. alone, the number of victims is thought to be in the hundreds of thousands, with human trafficking having been reported in all 50 states. It is, without a doubt, one of the most prescient and persistent problems that law enforcement and governments face today.
It is against this backdrop that Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) was established in December 2007. This Colorado-based non-profit works to train all truckers across the country in how to recognize the signs of human trafficking and how to respond in a way that will best help the victims and law enforcement. The organization trains truckers and works with various state agencies and industry partners to widen their reach.
As part of the training, TAT counsels truckers to report suspicions of trafficking to the anonymous National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH), which operates 24×7 and can connect the caller to local law enforcement. The NHTH also provides services and resources for victims.
TAT says that as of 2020, it has trained over a million personnel in the trucking industry, ranging from truck drivers to convenience store cashiers and gas station attendants. The group reports that over 2,500 calls have been made by self-identified truckers to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, as compared to a reported three before 2007. They also say that truckers have reported a total of 708 cases of potential human trafficking, with potentially as many as 1,300 victims. Per the NHTH, of the cases reported to them by truckers over the last five years, over 41% involve victims that are minors.
Truckers are, in some ways, ideal candidates for spotting potential human trafficking, according to a variety of experts, for a multitude of reasons. For one, “no one spends more time on the road than truck drivers,” as one source puts it. TAT calls truck drivers the “eyes and ears” of the nation’s highways, which is particularly crucial as trafficking most frequently occurs at truck stops and other such areas. This usually takes one of two forms: commercial sex (which is coerced) or though the massage parlors located at many truck stops, which also double up as sex trafficking organizations.
Traffickers successfully dodge the law by moving victims from location to location, which, of course, often employs the highways. Truckers — especially long-haul ones — are, thus, best suited to spotting these criminals and victims as they too move from location to location. These two groups of people intersect most frequently at convenience stores, rest areas, hotels, motels, and truck stops along the interstate.
In addition, truckers are also likely to be some of the only people awake late at night, when human smugglers may be using darkness to shield their crimes. Truck stops are also typically secluded from public view and are characterized by transience, making them better suited to crimes like trafficking, as people are able to slip under the radar.
Per a Census Bureau report from 2019, “more than 3.5 million people work as truck drivers,” making it “one of the largest occupations in the United States.” This could potentially mean millions of extra pairs of eyes trained on the activities of traffickers. In fact, some say, there are more truckers on the road at any given time than law enforcement.
Experts have put forth several tips on how to recognize trafficking situations and how to respond:
- Keep an eye out for weather-inappropriate clothing on young women or men, particularly if they are accompanied by someone who is dressed properly for the weather
- Notice anyone looking uncomfortable, out of place, or confused, or anyone who is loitering or lingering by truck stops
- Keep an eye out for young men or women frequently climbing in and out of vehicles
- Be aware of anyone waiting to be picked up, especially if they look reluctant to go with the person who does arrive to pick them up
- Listen to conversation on the Citizens Band (CB) radio, the short distance radio used by truckers. Note popular codewords for commercial sex work such as “lot lizard” or “Commercial Company.” Of course, listen for anyone overtly or covertly describing a particular child, rates, or sex acts they are looking for
- If you are suspicious that someone is being trafficked, gather as much information as possible without approaching, such as physical descriptions, distinctive characteristics, and vehicle information
- Be aware if you approach the victim, they may not be willing or ready to accept their status as a trafficked person
- Do not confront the suspected trafficker, and do not aggressively intervene
- Call the hotline or the local authorities to report the behavior, no matter how minor you may think the signs are
Currently, there is no federal law currently that mandates those in commercial driving schools learn to spot signs of human trafficking, though that suggestion does have a significant number of advocates. Around a dozen states, however, do use TAT material in their training for commercial drivers seeking licenses. These include Ohio, Arkansas, Washington, Kansas, and Texas, the last of which is among the four biggest trafficking states in the country (alongside California, Nevada and New York).
Some specialized colleges like the Southern Regional Technical College have also partnered with TAT to incorporate their free educational material into curricula. They require their students to learn how to spot signs of human trafficking alongisde crucial lessons on how to operate the trucks in a safe manner.
Currently, there has been widespread reporting about an acute shortage of commercial truck drivers in the U.S, as a result of Covid-19 supply-chain restrictions and as many drivers age out of the profession. This has spurred a concerted recruitment effort, which might be the perfect time to implement, more broadly, TAT’s training in the license requirements.
Just by recognizing the signs and being vigilant, one trucker could make a huge difference in a victim’s life, and save them from a truly torotour situation. Truckers who have been trained by TAT frequently lament that they had, many times, seen people who might have been victims, but thought they were voluntarily engaging in prostitution, rather than being trafficked.
It is clear that human trafficking is not a problem that law enforcement or the criminal justice system can tackle on its own. The efforts to combat such criminals relies on the public to help where and how they can — by staying alert and reporting any suspicious behavior.
As TAT’s Executive Director and co-founder Kendis Paris puts it, “As the eyes and ears of our nation’s highways, drivers are in a unique position to make a difference and close loopholes to traffickers who seek to exploit our transportation system for their personal gain.”
Anyone wanting to report potential trafficking or victims in need of help can call 911 for emergencies or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.
In addition, Truckers Against Trafficking can be contacted for help or getting certified at 612-888-2050.