A few months ago, over-the-road truck driver Gary Mars pulled into a rest stop in Oklahoma, just across the Arkansas border. Sitting in the cab of his truck, he watched a car pull up; five teenage girls who looked around 16 years old got out and sat at a picnic table using their cellphones. A man who was driving the car came over and took some of their phones away and went back to the car.
“It struck me as kind of odd, how they were grouped like they were and how they were dressed like they were,” he remembers.
Because he knows the area, Mars, who is based in Bentonville, Arkansas, called the local law enforcement, but the car was gone by the time they arrived. He’s not sure, but the situation he encountered looked like human trafficking.
In the trucking industry, human trafficking—which often takes the form of prostitution based in the truck stops, motels, and rest stops along America’s highways—is an issue of growing concern. The industry is coming to terms with the fact that many truck stop sex workers—often dubbed “lot lizards” in trucker slang—are involved in the practice against their will. Human trafficking is an international crime where, using force or coercion, someone is bought and sold for forced labor or commercial sex; its victims in the U.S. could number in the hundreds of thousands, and most are women and children.
To combat the practice, Arkansas state representative Charlotte Douglas recently introduced what became a new state law requiring Class A commercial truck drivers licensed in Arkansas to be trained to recognize human trafficking. Other states, like Ohio, Washington, and soon Texas, have similar laws requiring training for new commercial truck drivers. But Arkansas is the first to require the training for both new and renewing commercial driver’s license holders. (Kansas recently passed the same law that goes into effect in 2018 and extends to all CDL holders.)
Douglas, a Republican, says it’s fitting that Arkansas would have such a law. Trucking is one of the state’s major industries. Some of the biggest trucking companies in the country, including J.B. Hunt Transportation Services, Wal-Mart Transportation, and USA Truck, are based in Arkansas, which has about 60,000 CDL holders; 1 in 11 people in Arkansas are employed by the trucking industry, and the state ranks second in the concentration of trucking-industry jobs. “If you look at a map of the United States and if you look at Arkansas and the traffic that comes through our state, we are an east-west, north-south corridor,” Douglas says. “Arkansas has an unbelievable amount of truck traffic. We’re reaching nationwide with this law because of our location.”
The idea behind the law, which went into effect August 1, is “utilizing manpower,” says Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association. “There are far more truck drivers than there are law enforcement, and people who are perpetrating this crime do it in plain sight of truck drivers. It’s leveraging the access to the places, the people, and the information that our industry has and trying to do something good with it.”
Truckers Against Trafficking, a nonprofit founded in 2009, handles the training, which is free and online, for truck drivers in Arkansas and elsewhere. Training consists of a 26-minute video covering how to recognize human trafficking and how to report suspicious instances. In the video, truckers recount stories of seeing vans full of young girls soliciting sex at truck stops and hearing pimps soliciting via CB radios. It also features advocates from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and the FBI Crimes Against Children Unit explaining what human trafficking is and how traffickers exploit their victims’ vulnerabilities and location to commit their crimes.
The training doesn’t ask drivers to intervene if they suspect human trafficking, says Laura Cyrus, Truckers Against Trafficking’s operations director. They just need to recognize the red flags and call the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 911, or local law enforcement if they see something suspicious. “Truckers are the eyes and ears of our nation’s highway system,” she says.
Quantifying how often truckers come into contact with trafficking situations is difficult, Cyrus says. Truck drivers have made more than 1,800 calls to the national hotline since its inception in 2007. These calls have resulted in more than 500 cases of sex trafficking involving nearly 1,000 victims, of which about one-third were minors. But these numbers don’t include calls made to 911 or other law enforcement from truckers reporting trafficking.
For the past few years, Mars, a driver for Wal-Mart Transportation, has been involved with Truckers Against Trafficking, working to raise awareness about human trafficking and helping with the organization’s mobile exhibit, Freedom Drivers Project. In his 27 years on the road (he drives up to 140,000 miles a year), Mars says it wasn’t until he was trained to recognize the signs of human trafficking that he understood how much of it he had likely seen over the years. “I never realized that most of the girls aren’t doing it of their own free will,” he says. “Now, I’m a little more sensitive to the fact that these girls or boys need help. You don’t realize just what all is going on in those situations.”
For Allyson Hay, a driver based in Searcy, Arkansas, the training helped her come to the same conclusion. Hay, who drives around 80,000 miles per year, remembers once walking into the women’s restroom at a truck stop and seeing, “Help Me,” written on the bathroom mirror. She says she searched the restroom and looked around the truck stop but didn’t find anyone.
Drivers are in a unique position to recognize and combat human trafficking, she says. “The view is totally different sitting in that seat. I think we're just as important as police officers, because we can take a little bit more time and observe a little bit more.”
Some Arkansas truck drivers have expressed less enthusiasm about the new state law, however, saying it adds an extra burden to the CDL renewal process. (Arkansas commercial driver’s licenses expire every four years.) Driver-advocates like Mars disagrees. “Every human’s responsibility is to look out for the other,” he says. “The training is very simple; whether you do anything with it or not is up to you. We’re just trying to make everybody aware of the problem and educate them on how to recognize it. That's all it is.”
Ronnie Donley—known on the road as “Ron Don the Highway Cowboy”—also doesn’t think it’s asking too much. Donley, who is based in Little Rock and has been driving for 26 years, recalls being parked at an upstate New York truck stop a few years ago when a 40-something woman and a girl that looked to be about 16 knocked on the door of the cab of his truck. “When the young lady walked up to my truck and asked me if I wanted some company, I was like, ‘What in the world is going on?’”
Looking back, he wishes he’d known more.
“At one time, truckers were considered the knights of the road,” he says. “As much as truckers see out there and as many places as we go, if we recognize something that seems like trafficking, the only thing we have to do is call law enforcement. I think that’s a good thing.”