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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-21-002    Date:  Winter 2021
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-21-002
Issue No: Vol. 84 No. 4
Date: Winter 2021


Combating Human Trafficking

by Jihan Noizet and Shari Schaftlein

USDOT is working with partners and stakeholders across the transportation industry to put the brakes on human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery that involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain labor or a commercial sex act and includes the commercial sexual exploitation of children under any circumstances. The International Labour Organization estimates that, globally, as many as 24.9 million men, women, and children are exploited in various forms of contemporary slave-like practices. Human trafficking flourishes as a business because of the lucrative profits it generates–approximately $150 billion annually worldwide.

The hands of two people exchange money from a wallet while a child huddles in a corner behind them. Source: © saiyood / iStock by Getty Images.
The transportation sector can do a lot to help stop human trafficking.

Traffickers rely on the transportation industry in every phase of human trafficking: for recruitment, for moving and controlling victims, and for delivering victims to buyers. In the United States, victims are being trafficked by every form of transportation, including cars, vans, buses, airplanes, subways, trains, taxis, rideshares, and cruise ships.

"The U.S. Department of Transportation is committed to working with our public and private partners to fight human trafficking on America's transportation system," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao.

In 2018, USDOT launched its Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking (ACHT). ACHT is a Federal advisory committee created in accordance with the Combating Human Trafficking in Commercial Vehicles Act to make recommendations to the Secretary of Transportation on actions the Department can take to help combat human trafficking, and to develop recommended best practices for States and local transportation stakeholders in combating human trafficking. The Secretary appointed the 15 members as a cross-section of stakeholders from industry and labor, including representatives from the aviation, bus, law enforcement, maritime, port, rail, and trucking sectors.

In July 2019, the committee published its final report with recommendations, which is available at www.transportation.gov/administrations/office-policy/advisory-committee-human-trafficking. The report provides valuable feedback that methodically assesses data, strategies, policies, protocols, and public awareness at the intersection of the transportation sector and human trafficking.

USDOT's Counter-trafficking Efforts

Since the ACHT issued its final report, including recommendations for the Department, USDOT has both continued and expanded counter-trafficking leadership, partnerships, funding, training, awareness, and research efforts. The Federal Highway Administration is working on initiatives to engage stakeholders and promote public awareness.

Fifteen men and women, with Secretary Elaine L. Chao at the center, pose in a conference room. Source: USDOT.
Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao (center) with USDOT's Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking (ACHT) in 2019.


USDOT significantly expanded its Transportation Leaders Against Human Trafficking (TLAHT) partnership, with pledges signed by stakeholders from every mode of transportation, labor, and nongovernmental organizations from every State in the country. Signatories commit to educating employees, raising public awareness, and sharing data on the issue of human trafficking. More than 500 transportation stakeholders have signed the pledge. As of October 2020, signatories include 184 airports and airlines, 136 urban and rural transit agencies, 35 trucking and bus companies, 9 railways, 7 ports, 49 State departments of transportation, 8 States, and 11 cities.


USDOT awarded more than $1.5 million in grants to support State counter-trafficking efforts through driver's license standards and programs, $5.4 million in transit grants to address public safety (including human trafficking), and $50,000 to the winner of the new annual Combating Human Trafficking in Transportation Impact Award.


In addition to continuing to train its 54,000 employees every 3 years, USDOT's Blue Lightning Initiative training–tailored for the aviation sector and a joint effort with the Department of Homeland Security–expanded to 49 partners that include airlines, airports, and aviation associations reaching more than 100,000 aviation employees. Many of USDOT's human trafficking-related grants include support for expanded training initiatives, and TLAHT partners have committed to training 1.3 million transportation employees to recognize and respond to possible instances of human trafficking.


USDOT delivers presentations, convenes stakeholders, displays exhibits, and posts messages on social media to raise awareness about the intersection of human trafficking and transportation. Many of the Department's grants that include a human trafficking component support expanded public awareness on the issue, and the TLAHT pledge also encourages stakeholders to raise public awareness. The Department provides outreach resources to stakeholders at www.transportation.gov/stophumantrafficking.


During the 2020 Transportation Research Board 99th Annual Meeting of more than 14,000 transportation researchers and professionals, one of USDOT's keynote presentations and an exhibit underscored the role of transportation in combating human trafficking and highlighted key research gaps and opportunities. USDOT continues to support TRB's research programs on the intersection of human trafficking and transportation. The Department presented its inaugural Combating Human Trafficking in Transportation Impact Award to United Against Slavery to conduct a national counter-trafficking survey of transportation stakeholders of up to 500,000 respondents, the results of which will be available to the public, helping to inform future research on the intersection of human trafficking and transportation.

A large group of men and women holding pledge cards with Secretary Chao at the center. Source: USDOT.
In January 2020, leaders from Congress, State governments, and the transportation industry joined Secretary Chao (center) to pledge their commitment to fight human trafficking.

Going Beyond Required Training

Practitioners in the highway sector of transportation use multimodal options in their professional and personal travel, so it is helpful for them to have an understanding of how other modes are involved in human trafficking. Participating in training beyond what is required can help transportation professionals increase their knowledge and awareness to serve as champions against human trafficking. There is a wide variety of transportation training available online that transportation professionals can take on a voluntary basis to supplement required training. In particular, there is the Blue Lightning Initiative for aviation; "Hiding in Plain Sight," intended for Amtrak and the rail sector; and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's "Combating Human Trafficking" training.

Recommended Trainings

Target Transportation Sector Training Name Link Notes
Aviation Blue Lightning Initiative


3-minute preview of the training. Full access requires a Memorandum of Understanding with USDOT and the Department of Homeland Security.
Rail (Amtrak) Hiding in Plain Sight


12-minute video
State Agencies: Pennsylvania DOT Training Combating Human Trafficking


11-minute interactive video

The Role of State DOTs

Efforts among State DOTs to stop human trafficking are picking up momentum, although there is still a ways to go. State DOTs have access to pertinent information that can be useful to law enforcement in the quest to combat human trafficking. Given the role of State DOTs in building, maintaining, and regulating multiple large-scale transportation systems, State DOTs can be well positioned to make an impact in combating human trafficking. One of the most powerful resources available to State DOTs is their human capital. When employees are educated and trained on preventing human trafficking, they function as not only frontline deterrents but also as multipliers by helping to spread awareness to the public.

The ACHT report offers a substantial number of recommendations for the States. Three critical ones are training, awareness, and partnerships.

"Training is instrumental in ensuring frontline employees are prepared to respond to potential trafficking situations," says Yassmin Gramian, Secretary of Transportation at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. "Making sure that everyone is on the same page can save lives."

States have found success with general human trafficking awareness training of State transportation employees and law enforcement officials that includes case studies and scenario-based trainings. This approach has the ability to engage stakeholders and keep them vested in the process.

Additionally, it is important to raise public awareness and adopt a uniform message among stakeholders through the use of targeted materials. Adopting a uniform message using existing materials from Federal agencies emphasizes the message and provides an unvarying communication effort across all stakeholders involved–presenting a combined front against human trafficking as a whole.

An illustration with silhouettes on the side of a freight truck of two adults and a child running. © AlexLMX / Shutterstock.
Awareness, research, training, and collaboration are all important in the battle against human trafficking.

Finally, partnerships are crucial to the success of getting key messages out to stakeholders. Creating a comprehensive approach to human trafficking through coalitions emphasizes that this issue transcends all communities, States, and the Federal Government. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials is providing a forum at national and regional meetings for leadership peer exchange on the subject.

Transportation Research Board Initiatives

USDOT has partnered with TRB to accomplish several coordination and outreach efforts. These include a session at the 6th International Conference on Women and Transportation Issues, held in Irvine, CA, in September 2019, as well as 2020 TRB Annual Meeting events. In July 2020, TRB sponsored a webinar on Human Trafficking and Mobility of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. TRB has also recently formed the Human Trafficking in Transportation Common Interest Group Steering Committee. The objectives of the group include knowledge sharing, collaboration, and serving as champions on the anti-human trafficking topic.

In addition, human trafficking projects are included in two research programs that TRB administers: the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) and the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP).

TRB's NCHRP Research Efforts

The NCHRP is spearheading research to inform State DOTs interested in developing structured responses to human trafficking that are appropriate to their State, in addition to supporting employees who may be on the front lines against this criminal activity. The objectives of NCHRP project 20-121, State DOT Contributions to the Study, Investigation, and Interdiction of Human Trafficking, are to identify how State DOTs can assist and enhance the existing efforts to combat human trafficking, and to develop guidelines and a suite of tools that support effective training, policy, and collaborative practices related to mitigating human trafficking.

The first phase of this research is complete, and the results will be published in early 2021. Using the ACHT framework, the report will summarize findings and conclusions, and provide definitions, sample policies, scenarios, and program management tools.

A man's arm grabs a scared woman. © KatarzynaBialasiewicz, iStock by Getty Images.
USDOT is collaborating with partners in the United States and abroad to put the brakes on human trafficking.

The State DOTs, through AASHTO, recently added additional funding to the project. A second phase will support dissemination and implementation of the research results, with a focus on prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnerships.

Some insights from the project to date include that partnering is key and that law enforcement and victim services are instrumental to fighting human trafficking. It is also essential to address common State DOT programming needs. These include executive-level interest and internal capacity within the State DOT; clear objectives aligned to partner expectations; program governance that is explicit and well-communicated to the rest of the organization; training, policies, and processes (for example, making reporting familiar and automatic); education of external partners on what State DOTs bring to a broader anti-trafficking effort; and the need for a connected community of interest with recurring contact.

"Human trafficking is an issue that all States and communities have a role in combating, and this report is a critical step in arming State DOTs with information to increase awareness and further advance anti-trafficking measures," says Arlin Alvarez, the Wellness Program administrator for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and co-chair of the NCHRP's project panel for State DOT Contributions to the Study, Investigation, and Interdiction of Human Trafficking. "As TxDOT continues to amplify and expand the human trafficking awareness campaign we launched in 2019, we appreciate every opportunity to collaborate with our fellow DOTs to share resources and insight on how we can collectively make a positive difference by watching for and reporting trafficking."

TRB's ACRP Research Efforts

The ACRP has launched ACRP project 04-24, Guidelines to Develop an Anti-Human Trafficking Action Plan for Airports, to develop a primer, guidebook, and toolkit to help airport operators create and implement a comprehensive anti-human trafficking action plan.

How State DOTs Can Help Law Enforcement

State DOTs can support law enforcement by supplying certain knowledge, data, and expertise. Providing these resources may produce actionable information or corroborating evidence. Sources of information include:

  • Surveillance information from rest areas and welcome areas.
  • Documentation of observations by workforce in unpatrolled areas (for example, remote sites).
  • Common trafficker routes or circuits–national, regional, and local.
  • Information on suspected trafficker sites at or near transportation agency assets.
  • Surveillance information from weigh stations, toll facilities, and similar roadside operations.
  • Data on human trafficking activity from partner facilities.
  • License plate images.
  • Case studies from the transportation sector and State DOTs.
  • Toll or station activity.
  • Geospatial expertise (such as providing interpretation of aerial imagery).

International Outreach

USDOT uses its participation in international activities such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Transportation Working Group, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and the International Transport Forum to encourage counterparts across the globe to engage their stakeholders on the issue of combating human trafficking.

Within the APEC working group, USDOT is spearheading a project entitled "Combating Human Trafficking by Addressing Illicit Uses of Transportation." Under the project, two webinars were held in September and October 2020 on "Combating Human Trafficking in the Transportation Sector" and "Modal Strategies to Combat Human Trafficking." The two meetings focused on overarching best practices for transportation ministries, transport operators, law enforcement, and civil society organizations to combat human trafficking in the transportation sector through leadership, data collection, reporting, employee training, and public awareness.

A word cloud graphic with words related to human trafficking. © Kheng Guan Toh / Shutterstock.

One common thread among the webinars' presentations was the importance of partnerships within and between governments; with hotlines, where applicable; and with law enforcement. USDOT presented during both meetings and included examples of modal strategies in the trucking, transit, aviation, and port sectors.

Additional international cooperation efforts are needed to compile the state of practice and aspirational efforts focused on the highway system, including highways, arterials, adjacent supporting services, and land use, such as fueling, rest areas, and formal and informal right-of-way encampments. Highway transportation agencies collectively can consider how they can communicate with vulnerable populations, disrupt trafficking networks, and eliminate forced labor in transportation construction through effective design, licensing, contracting, and operation.

Combating Human Trafficking Together

FHWA strongly encourages its partners and stakeholders to sign the Transportation Leaders Against Human Trafficking pledge. USDOT's TLAHT group urges transportation leaders, including travel industry stakeholders, to connect in an effort to combat human trafficking. This initiative is supported by USDOT leadership across all levels and modal agencies. The Transportation Leaders Against Human Trafficking pledge is available at www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/2020-02/TLAHT%20Pledge%202020.pdf.

"This call to action is not just at an organizational level, it is at a personal level, too," says Thomas Everett, FHWA's Executive Director. "We can all make a difference, as long as we do our part and educate ourselves–knowledge is power, knowledge saves lives."

Jihan Noizet is a transportation specialist in FHWA's Office of International Programs and oversees the coordination and implementation of cooperative program activities between FHWA and its foreign counterparts. She holds a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of North Texas and a master's degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Dallas.

Shari Schaftlein is the director of FHWA's Office of Human Environment. She has 33 years of public service spanning Tribal, State, and Federal governments and nonprofits. She has held leadership positions in the FHWA Office of Planning, Environment, and Realty for the past 16 years. She holds a bachelor's degree in public affairs and a master's degree in environmental science from Indiana University.

For more information, visit www.transportation.gov/stophumantrafficking, see "Internet Watch: Combating Human Trafficking" in the Autumn 2020 issue of Public Roads, or contact Jihan Noizet at Jihan.Noizet@dot.gov.



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