There are nearly two-million truck drivers on U.S. highways. They transport essentials goods and resources that keep our economy and our lives in motion. Now, as of this week, a new Ohio truck driver licensing requirement will mean training to spot and report possible human trafficking.
In a McDonald’s parking lot off U.S. Route 36, Gary Smith, a driver for Garner Trucking, shows me his freedom truck. It’s a black semi wrapped in a mural of patriotic decals.
"There’s no other one like it on the planet," said Smith. "We have the Brooklyn Bridge on this side, and then on this side it says 'Freedom is Never Free,' with the Marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima."
Smith has been driving 500 miles a day, five to six days a week, for the last decade. He’s covered nearly one million miles of pavement, and in that time he says he’s seen some things.
He’s never been late on a delivery, but there’s one mistake he still regrets.
"I encountered a young teenage girl about eight years ago," said Smith. "[It was a] cold rainy night, October, freezing cold rain. Just torrential downpour. I was exhausted."
Smith pulled over for the night at a truck stop and fell asleep in his cab.
"At about 3 o’clock in the morning I heard 'knock, knock, knock, knock,' somebody banging on my door," Smith said.
When Smith looked out the window he saw a young girl who looked about 16 years old.
"And she said 'Do you want any company?' And I responded 'I'm not lonely. Go away.'
"I watched her just turn and go away and disappear into the darkness."
In this industry, Smith says the occasional run-in with sex workers is not uncommon.
But now, thanks to a nationwide organization called Truckers Against Trafficking, Smith says he understands more about forced human trafficking. He says that night at the truck stop, he knows he didn’t do the right thing.
"I never even gave her the opportunity for rescue, I just assumed like too many other people, you chose this. You want to be here. You’re a lot lizard," said Smith.
In Ohio, officials estimate that each year, more than 1,000 children and young teens are forced into sex trafficking. Across the country as many as 17,000 people are forced into the trade.
Some have been kidnapped, and many are transported from city to city along highways.
"Highways can transport all kinds of things, goods services and people… and people for worse sometimes," says Elizabeth Ranade Janis, the Antihuman Trafficking Coordinator at the Ohio Department of Safety.
She says recruiting commercial drivers to help them in their efforts was common sense.
"Many truckers just by virtue of all the time they spend on the road, overnight at hotels, they really can see when there’s elicit activity taking place," said Ranade Janis.
On Friday, Ohio will become the first state to mandate that all commercial driving schools teach students about human trafficking, things like, how to spot potential victims and report suspicious activity to a national hotline.
Ranade Janis says they’ve also begun training professionals in other industries where exploitation takes place.
"So for example we train hotel inspectors. We train those who inspect beauty salons, and also cosmetologists," said Ranade Janis.
Nationwide, the group Truckers Against Trafficking has produced more than one thousand tips to the national hotline, and they’ve helped identify some 700 potential victims.
Last year, Ohio Highway Patrol Captain Mike Crispen developed a partnership with the organization. Troopers received human trafficking prevention training, and they passed out informational pamphlets and bumper stickers to truck drivers .
Crispen says the program helped lead to a 32 percent increase in the number of hotline tips coming from Ohio.
Crispen says that because truck drivers are well-trained and disciplined, he's seen them responded well to the call to action.
"As a professional worker in the United States, they’re also responsible and when they see things, they have families, they have children, and when they see things, they want to do something about it," said Crispen.
Many of the driving schools have already begun training students with Truckers Against Trafficking curriculum. It shows them what to look for, like cars filled with people pulling into the back of a truck stop, covert headlight signals and CB radio chatter soliciting sex with minors.
Crispen says many students have the same reaction.
"'I've been seeing this most of my career. I didn’t know that this is what I was seeing.' And now that they’ve seen it, they can go to action by calling that phone number.
Back on the highway, driver Gary Smith says if he ever spots a potential victim of human trafficking, his response will be very different.
"I’ll ask them, 'Are you being held against your will, can you come and go freely?" said Smith.
After his run-in with the teenaged girl all those years ago, Smith hopes he’ll get one more chance to do right.
"All I can hope and pray is that I get one opportunity to save one."