Guest Op-Ed: The Role Transportation Professionals Can Play in Recognizing and Disrupting Human Trafficking

Close to a half million people in the United States are currently being exploited for labor or sex or both, either through indentured servitude or outright slavery. Transportation facilities and vehicles are often the first places where victims are found by those seeking to exploit them. On any given day, in fact, virtually all of us might at some point find ourselves at an intersection, on a freeway or in a business area where trafficking activities are taking place—a classic example of evil “hiding in plain sight.” It is incumbent upon transportation professionals to recognize indicators and properly report potential problems to play an active role in disrupting it.

State and local departments of transportation across the nation are joining the fight against the modern slave trade. Most notable among these are Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, which have specific training programs for employees focused on recognizing human trafficking. This effort in some ways is akin to how children’s advocacy centers train school districts in how to recognize and report signs of child abuse.

Texas is one of the newest examples of leadership in this area, having enacted laws that require state DOT employees to be trained to recognize tell-tale indicators in a state often cited as one of the worst in the U.S. for human trafficking. Those indicators might involve examples like these that would be noticeable to road construction and maintenance crews:

  • Unusually high levels of in-and-out activity at establishments like roadside motels, particularly if it involves people who appear to be especially young.
  • Several people exiting a vehicle and then approaching and engaging truck drivers in the vicinity of a truck stop or highway rest area.
  • Vehicles transporting multiple people to a farm or other location involving physical labor.

By reporting these or similar examples of suspicious activity, transportation agency employees can provide an essential first step in an investigation by alerting the proper authorities as to what they’ve witnessed. Information provided to DOT employees and the public in the form of posters, information cards, and restroom stall signs at highway rest stops help people to follow three simple steps: Know what to look for, make the call, and stay out of the way. As the saying goes, if you see something, say something.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of employees spend their workdays on roads, bridges, and border crossing networks. If properly trained, those legions can provide invaluable assistance to law enforcement agencies who need all the help they can get to fight this battle.

As a profession, we are getting better at recognizing and understanding how transportation can facilitate human trafficking. At the same time, though, we are also coming to understand how transportation can also facilitate the healing and recovery process. Transit agencies working in coordination with victim assistance groups, for instance, can provide free or discounted passes that would help survivors transition to a new home or new job.

When I was studying to become a civil engineer, the subject of human trafficking was not among the college courses available to me. But now, more than 20 years later, the topic permeates my daily work just as surely as the details of roadway reconstruction.

The modern slave market shares something in common with entirely legal ventures. To be successful, both require a system of mobility. Just as legitimate shippers need roads and bridges to meet routine customer needs, those who trade in human lives must have a transportation network to profit from their sinister enterprise.

And that puts transportation professionals in a unique spot, where they can interrupt the trafficking cycle—if they know what to look for, and how to respond.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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