Cross-border panel finds few safety problems with Mexican trucks

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The Department of Transportation on Thursday, Nov. 6, released the final report produced by an independent evaluation panel on DOT’s cross-border truck demonstration project between the United States and Mexico. The panel determined that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and state safety enforcement officials reported no crashes involving Mexican carriers participating in the demonstration project, and that these carriers also had lower out-of-service rates relative to the OOS rates for all U.S.-domiciled trucks.

But the report found that the level of participation fell far short of what DOT had projected: Only 29 Mexico-domiciled carriers were granted operating authority, 27 remained in the project, and 25 participated. Because the 27 carriers represented about 4 percent of the 700 carriers that applied initially, the sample size was too small for making a statistically significant comparison of safety performance from the participant Mexican carriers to the carriers who applied for the project and were likely to seek such long-haul operating authority in the future.

According to the panel, FMCSA agency data showed that of the 12,000 truck trips made by the project carriers, there were six cases where a project driver was convicted for a driving offense; one of the convictions was for speeding 6 to 10 miles beyond the speed limit, four were for general equipment failure, and another was for improper lane change.

The panel also found that FMCSA had implemented policies and regulations regarding admitting Mexico-domiciled carriers into the demonstration project, establishing safety mechanisms at the border, ensuring enforcement of safety rules by state enforcement officials, and carrying out DOT’s commitment to check every truck every time. However, the panel also determined that FMCSA needed to improve its enforcement mechanism to stop carriers operating without the required insurance before they entered the United States.

A copy of the report is available here. DOT’s Office of the Inspector General will make its own report at a later date.

“This report provides a comprehensive, independent analysis of the safety measures the agency put in place to ensure the success of the project,” said FMCSA Administrator John Hill. “As the report makes clear, those measures have effectively shown that U.S. and Mexican carriers can safely engage in cross-border trucking operations while providing U.S. drivers new opportunities to compete and succeed in a market where they previously were unable to operate.”

The cross-border truck demonstration project — which was initiated on Sept. 6, 2007 — allows Mexican trucks to begin traveling beyond a 25-mile zone into the U.S. interior. U.S. trucks participating in the pilot program also are permitted to haul cargo deep into Mexico. Soon after Transportation Secretary Mary Peters first announced the project in February 2007, Congress began a lengthy legislative battle with the Bush administration over it.

After the program had begun, Congress attempted to end it three months later by passing legislation banning funding to “establish” a program that allowed U.S.-certified Mexican trucks to carry loads across the border and into the country. DOT argued that it interpreted “establish” as meaning to start another program rather than to stop the current one already in place that it said allows the United States to comply with its North American Free Trade Agreement commitments. Peters also defended the program as one that offers a financial boost for U.S. truckers doing business in Mexico.

On Feb. 14, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco heard arguments about whether the Bush administration could go ahead with the program despite congressional attempts to stop it; as of today, Nov. 7, the court hasn’t released its ruling in the case. The Teamsters and environmentalists argued before the appeals court that the program erodes highway safety and eliminates U.S. jobs; they also said there are insufficient safeguards to ensure Mexican trucks are as safe as U.S. carriers.

Legislation to stop DOT from fully opening the U.S. border to Mexican trucks prior to fully evaluating the pilot program was passed July 31 by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, said DOT needed to look at how much the pilot has cost and the impact it has had on overall motor carrier safety.

In response, Hill announced Aug. 4 that the project, initially set to end a month later, would be extended for two years. Hill argued that a number of potential companies had been unwilling to invest the time and resources necessary to participate due to uncertainties concerning the project’s longevity. He said the two-year extension would “ensure that the demonstration project can be reviewed and evaluated on the basis of a more comprehensive body of data.”