Borderline hysteria

A year from now, what will we know about Mexican carriers operating in the United States? Assuming the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s pilot demonstration program survives both Congress and the courts – and that’s hardly a sure bet – we likely will learn that the handful of Mexico-domiciled carriers that operate beyond the commercial zones are at least as safe as most U.S. carriers.

Political pressures and successive legislative restrictions forced FMCSA to adopt oversight procedures that are too stringent to offer much insight into what the impact would be if the Mexican border were as open as the Canadian border is today. In addition to compliance checks of every single driver and vehicle crossing the border, FMCSA will use satellite tracking to monitor compliance with hours-of-service regulations and cabotage restrictions. Facing such scrutiny, only the cleanest carriers likely will participate. If the Bush administration plans to open the border fully after a year, it can’t honestly point to this tightly controlled, resource-intensive pilot program for justification.

But the program’s limitations and flaws pale in comparison to the hysterical and illogical rhetoric its critics have tossed around this year. The Teamsters have used the phrase “unsafe Mexican trucks” in news releases 28 times since February. If “Mexican trucks” haven’t replaced “Chinese toys” as the symbol of misguided globalism, it’s not for a lack of trying. Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook talked about FMCSA’s decision “to let loose Mexico-domiciled carriers on the public.” If you are picturing a swarm of killer bees, that’s probably close to what Claybrook intended.

The inflammatory language has nothing on the critics’ pretzel logic, however. “This will allow up to 100 Mexican trucking firms open access to U.S. highways, putting American drivers at risk,” Teamsters President James Hoffa said of the pilot program on March 30. Here Hoffa isn’t talking about an eventual opening of the border to all carriers; he’s saying the pilot program itself is dangerous.

Apparently, Hoffa must have learned something quite damning about the pilot program in the previous three weeks, because here’s what he told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on March 8: “With regard to the pilot program itself, my guess is that the DOT will select the ‘cream of the crop’ of Mexican carriers, whether they be large or small, to slant the data on violations, crashes and other compliance issues and proclaim the program successful.”

So which is it? Are Mexican carriers in the pilot program perilously unsafe or so amazingly safe that they don’t accurately represent future operators into the United States? They can’t be both. And it’s not just Hoffa flip-flopping on this significant point. Claybrook has done it. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing motor carriers, voiced both views in the same press conference on Sept. 7.

But the most interesting aspect of the critics’ arguments concerns their list of grievances over Mexico’s safety oversight: Lax enforcement of hours-of-service regulations, problems with collecting and managing safety data and loopholes in administering drug and alcohol testing. Aren’t those some of the same complaints Public Citizen and its allies have with DOT? How long will it be before safety advocates turn the tables and promote the stringent pilot program as a model for oversight of U.S. carriers?

For many, the battle over Mexican trucks is really about jobs and competition. They aren’t happy with the North American Free Trade Agreement and want to maintain the status quo. It’s more effective to talk safety and security, however, because people care more about those issues than they do the loss of someone else’s job. Before you jump on the bandwagon, however, consider whether your own operation could live up to the same level of scrutiny.