From the Hill
A dangerous experiment
Attempts to allow Mexican trucks on U.S. roads are premature

The Bush administration has announced plans for a pilot program to allow hundreds of Mexican motor carriers unlimited access to U.S. roads. Yet serious doubts remain as to whether the U.S. government has the ability to monitor and assure the safety compliance of Mexican trucks and drivers.

Permitting unsafe trucks to operate on our highways will have serious consequences for the traveling public and for those men and women who transport goods on our roads. The administration must be able to guarantee that every truck crossing our border meets all applicable U.S. safety standards for truck and driver before entering this country. These guarantees must be in place, not only on paper but in practice, before the Department of Transportation begins approving requests by Mexican trucking companies for access.

The DOT’s Office of the Inspector General continues to review the implementation of cross-border trucking provisions under the North American Free Trade Agreement, and its latest available audit shows that many gaps remain in our ability to ensure the safe operation of Mexican trucks on our roads.

Among numerous areas of concern, the OIG finds that:

1. The U.S. lacks a comprehensive system for monitoring Mexican driver records;

2. Data on Mexican carriers used by the U.S. to identify high-risk companies and drivers is not accurate and up-to-date; and

3. Adequate controls at drug and alcohol testing facilities in Mexico are not in place.

The OIG plans to release an updated audit before the end of this year.

In addition, serious doubts remain as to how well the Mexican government is enforcing any hours-of-service regulations domestically. Mexican officials point to general labor laws providing for an eight-hour workday, but there is no evidence that any general limitation on commercial motor vehicle drivers is enforced.

Anecdotal evidence from news reports suggests that working hours for truck drivers in Mexico go far beyond a safe, reasonable limit. Although Mexican drivers entering the U.S. will have to comply with our hours-of-service laws, it will be extremely difficult for U.S. enforcement officials at the border to ensure that Mexican truck drivers are rested unless the Mexican government enforces a meaningful hours-of-service standard.

These and numerous other problems surrounding vehicle and driver standards must be wholly addressed before Mexican trucks are permitted to travel freely in the U.S.

Each year more than 5,000 people are killed in large truck crashes on our nation’s roads, and tens of thousands more are seriously injured. We do not want and cannot afford to have unsafe, uninspected, unregulated trucks and drivers on U.S. roads.

The U.S. is obligated to live up to its commitments under NAFTA, but we are not going to compromise the lives, health, and well being of our people to do so. For years, my colleagues and I have called upon this administration and its predecessor to ensure that Mexican trucks will operate safely and in compliance with U.S. laws before they are allowed unfettered access to our nation’s roads. If this administration opens the border before all remaining gaps have been fully examined and closed, the results could be deadly.

Access to our streets is a privilege, not a right, when it comes to safety. Until Mexico does a better job of policing its trucks before they cross the border, and until we do a better job of verifying compliance with our safety laws, the current restrictions must remain in place and be enforced.

No American motorist should ever have to wonder whether the truck in front of them is safe, and whether the truck driver is qualified.

Editor’s note: James L. Oberstar is a Democrat now in his 16th term representing the Eighth District of Minnesota in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which among other things, has jurisdiction over America’s surface transportation – including trucking.