LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- There's a new law on the books in Arkansas that might make us rethink commercial truck drivers.
Because they are out on the open road, some of us might call the trucker drivers “cowboys,” but we might have a new term for them if Act 922 leads to change: lifesavers.
The law passed this legislative session is taking a step toward stamping out human trafficking, as it makes the men and women of the trucking industry the eyes and ears of the road.
Trafficking is a crime that often takes place in plain sight.
“I never really thought about it,” said Otto Schmechenbecker, a life-long truck driver and member of the Arkansas Road Team. His group works with the leading industry trade organization, the Arkansas Trucking Association.
“It exists everywhere. Not just in big cities,” explained Nancie Garrett, a volunteer with two groups fighting human trafficking called Into the Light and Traffic 911. “It’s not just in Memphis, Atlanta, or Tulsa. It happens everywhere, and it's happening here.”
There’s an important distinction between human trafficking and prostitution. The former often involves kidnapped underage girls and boys taken and forced into the sex trade.
“We can't think that this just happens overseas or in third world countries anymore,” said Garrett. “This is happening in our state in our communities.”
Garrett’s organizations go to jails trying to reach the victims of trafficking and use information to identify potential victims. Now these groups are teaming up with the trucking industry to reach the victims as they travel on the nation's highways. Their campaign is called “Truckers Against Trafficking.”
“We're out on the road, most of us for 24/7,” Schmekenbecher said. “We see what things are going on. We kind of learn to look around and watch for things that aren't exactly what they should be.”
He's among the first drivers trained to look for human trafficking victims while on the job.
“A lot of times you think they're just prostitutes out there trying to make a living, but a lot of them have been kidnapped or coerced into this prostitution for someone else,” he said.
If he can recognize it, he’s sure other truckers can learn to as well. And now Arkansas drivers can learn to recognize it thanks to Act 922.
The state works with Truckers Against Trafficking to show a professionally-produced 14-minute video. It shows a teenage victim from Ohio as she details her ordeal of being kidnapped, tortured, and threatened along with her sister. The film also features FBI agents, state prosecutors, and advocates.
The law requires truck drivers in Arkansas now must watch the video then answer a few quiz questions when they get or renew their commercial driving license or CDL. The training arms drivers with a toll-free number or text line to send tips.
State representative Charlotte Douglas sponsored the law and stresses how easy it is for drivers – and that it’s free. Plus, Arkansas is the first state to include the training as a part of CDL registration.
Retail giant Walmart, and its giant trucking fleet, threw their support behind it and has their drivers among the first in line to complete the training. It could mean thousands more watchful eyes at truck stops and other highway spots
“What we're looking for is the young teenagers and young adults,” Schmeckenbecher said, while admitting he used to think human trafficking was an overseas problem. “You see someone that doesn't fit the position they’re in, they're way too young to be out doing what they're doing.”
For advocates, that help is the start of getting other industries and communities involved.
“The truckers can't do it alone,” Garrett said. “Law Enforcement can't do it alone. Judges can't do it alone. Nobody can do it alone. It's a global problem. It's not just a one person can fix this problem.”
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