Mexican truck plan draws fire

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American Trucking Associations is endorsing a competency-based approach to driver training standards. The new ATA policy also provides guidance on the qualifications for driver-instructors and promotes tougher commercial driver’s license testing for new drivers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration must rewrite its rules for entry-level driver training due to a federal appeals court decision in late 2005. The court ruling means that FMCSA’s new rules must include a requirement for on-road training.

FMCSA will allow motor carriers to use automatic hydraulic inertia brake systems – known as surge brakes – on trailers with gross vehicle weight ratings up to 20,000 lbs., depending on the weight of the towing vehicle. Regulations previously required that brakes on all trailers be capable of being activated at any time. For more, go to this site and search Docket No. 21323.

American Trucking Associations’ advanced seasonally adjusted For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index rose 1.6 percent in February after dropping a revised 3.1 percent in January. On a seasonally adjusted basis, the index rose to 113.3 in February from 111.5 in January. The index dropped 1.7 percent compared with a year earlier, for the eighth straight year-over-year decline.

Freight Transportation Services Index fell 0.4 percent in January to 107.9 from the December level of 108.4, falling after a one-month increase, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported. The January freight index was down 4.4 percent from its peak of 112.8 in January 2005.

The department of Transportation’s pilot program to allow a select group of Mexican trucking companies to operate beyond the commercial zones in the United States was greeted with a chorus of criticism and concern from labor and driver groups, safety advocates and legislators. The American Trucking Associations endorsed the move, emphasizing that expanded access by Mexican carriers was a commitment under the North American Free Trade Agreement and would allow reciprocal access to Mexico by U.S. carriers.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced Feb. 23 that truck safety inspectors working for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration would be allowed into Mexico to conduct extensive safety audits on carriers interested in hauling cargo into and out of the United States. Up to 100 carriers passing such inspections will be allowed to make deliveries beyond the 20- to 25-mile commercial zones now in place along the Southwest border, Peters said during an event at truck inspection facilities in El Paso, Texas. Up to 100 U.S. carriers, in turn, would be granted access to Mexico.

Current rules require a cumbersome and time-consuming transfer of cargo between U.S. and Mexican carriers at border ports. U.S. trucks can’t enter Mexico because the United States has never implemented a NAFTA provision that obligates the U.S. government to grant access to Mexican carriers.

“The United States has never shied away from opportunities to compete, to open new markets and to trade with the world,” Peters said. “Now that safety and security programs are in place, the time has come for us to move forward on this longstanding promise with Mexico.”

Inspection teams will review safety, licensing and insurance requirements of Mexican carriers. For example, they will verify that Mexican carriers in the program have insurance issued by U.S.-licensed firms. Inspectors also will check that drivers hold a valid commercial driver’s license, have a current medical certificate and can comply with U.S. hours-of-service rules. Each U.S.-bound truck will have to pass a comprehensive safety inspection. “With this new program, we prove that safety and economic growth are compatible,” Peters said.

In 2001, Congress listed 22 safety requirements that had to be in place before a cross-border inspection program could be implemented. DOT’s Office of Inspector General’s reports success in meeting the congressional requirements, Peters said. DOT has invested $500 million since 1995 to modernize border safety facilities, and to hire and train the more than 500 federal and state inspectors who inspect trucks crossing the border every day, she added.

Cool reception
The close regulation of Mexican carriers operating in the United States, as planned by DOT, “will ensure a level playing field in cross-border operations,” said Clayton Boyce, ATA’s vice president of public affairs. “Ensuring a level playing field also requires that when U.S. carriers are to begin operations in Mexico, the permitting and regulatory processes put in place by the government of Mexico must be fair, clear and transparent.”

But in most quarters, reaction was cool at best. For example, Peters cited the DOT inspector general’s reports of progress as support for the pilot program. But in a congressional hearing last month, DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel, who took office last fall and has not previously issued reports on the Mexican situation, said he had no confidence that U.S. and Mexican trucking standards are equivalent, as Congress said six years ago must happen before any opening of the border to trucks. At a March 8 hearing of the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee, Scovel also cited flaws in the drug-testing regime planned for Mexican drivers. Urine samples will be collected in Mexico, but the analysis will be done in the United States, because no lab south of the border is certified to U.S. standards.

Among labor and safety groups, as well as key legislators, the reaction was more hostile despite the limited number of Mexican trucks that would be allowed to operate in the United States, as well as the inspection procedures and other controls. Teamsters President Jim Hoffa voiced perhaps the strongest opposition by charging that allowing Mexican trucks on the road was tantamount to “playing a game of Russian roulette on America’s highways.”

Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook argued that inspections will be meaningless because the trucks won’t have black boxes that record how long a driver has been behind the wheel. “They have no way of telling how many hours these truck drivers have been driving before they get to the U.S., let alone when they get here,” Claybrook said.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association acknowledged some improvements in the safety oversight of Mexican carriers in the past five years, but it said important questions remain unanswered. “DOT has maintained for at least a decade that the licenses used in Mexico to drive trucks are the equivalent of the American CDL,” noted OOIDA Executive VP Todd Spencer. “That’s never been true.”

Compliance with work-hour rules is another worry, “There is simply no way anyone can know whether a truck driver coming from Mexico entering the United States has been awake two hours or two weeks when they clear the border.” And a big loophole, OOIDA charges, is lack of access to drivers’ full records. “When enforcement officials run a Mexican CDL, the only information he can access will be that of previous operation in the U.S., not Mexico where a driver might have a rap sheet as long as your arm.”

Key lawmakers – especially those in the Democratic majority – voiced concerns that the pilot program that Peters outlined wasn’t enough. At the March 8 hearing, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the subcommittee, charged that the pilot program appeared to be more “show than scrutiny