SPECIAL REPORT: Border opening about two months away

| 2/23/2007

Friday, Feb. 23, 2007 - After years of roadblocks that all but prevented Mexico-domiciled trucks from operating throughout the U.S., the border will be opening to 100 Mexican motor carriers in two short months.

One of the biggest sticking points keeping the border closed to Mexican-domiciled trucks has been who will inspect the trucks and where they will be inspected before they are allowed into the states.

On Thursday, Feb. 22, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters announced that U.S. officials would be inspecting the Mexican motor carriers in Mexico.

Shortly after Peters announced the inspection program, officials at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association learned that the pilot program was moving full-steam ahead, and that 100 Mexican-domiciled motor carriers were going to be allowed to operate freely within the U.S.

That information was confirmed when Peters spoke at a press conference Friday morning in El Paso, TX.

The on-site inspections of Mexican motor carriers that have applied for operating authority in the U.S. aren't being done at random.

OOIDA officials learned the Department of Transportation already has a pretty good fix on 100 motor carriers for possible approval into the program.

Of the 100 motor carriers, 70 already operate in the U.S. commercial zone - leaving 30 Mexican-domiciled carriers being considered with no experience operating on U.S. soil.

In what could be considered an ironic twist, U.S.-domiciled motor carriers won't be allowed into Mexico for a few months after Mexican trucks begin operating in the U.S.

Peters said U.S. inspection teams will visit Mexican trucking companies to ensure their trucks and drivers meet the same safety, insurance and licensing requirements that apply to all U.S. truckers. She added the inspectors will evaluate truck maintenance and driver testing for compliance with U.S. requirements.

The inspection teams also will check whether drivers have a valid commercial driver's license, have a current medical certificate and can comply with U.S. hours-of-service rules.

The teams will review driving histories for each driver the company plans to use to operate within the U.S. and verify the company is insured by U.S.-licensed firms.

Finally, each inspection team will verify that every U.S.-bound truck has passed a comprehensive safety inspection. Trucks lacking required documentation will be subject to a "hood to tail-lamps" inspection by the teams.

OOIDA officials aren't putting a lot of stock into these on-site safety audits.

"They can't confirm whether they are safe or not. The documentation doesn't exist on driver experience, drug testing or anything else," OOIDA President Jim Johnston said.

Peters told press in El Paso, TX, that in "about 60 days" when the initial safety audits are done and proof-of-insurance verified, the first Mexican trucks will begin traveling beyond the border areas.

"We are ready with modern inspection facilities (at the U.S.-Mexico border), and we have hired and trained hundreds of inspectors," Peters said. "All told, 540 federal and state inspectors are already on the job, standing by to screen trucks coming across the border."

Peters contends those inspections at the border will guarantee safe operation of the Mexican motor carriers, based on current experience.

"Our records show that Mexican trucks currently operating in the commercial zone are as safe as the trucks operated by companies here in the United States," she said. "We know this because federal and state inspectors are already screening the trucks crossing into our country from Mexico."

The Association doesn't have a lot of faith in those statements, either.

Utilizing FMCSA data, OOIDA officials determined the agency shows there were more than 4.65 million incoming trucks to the US from Mexico in 2005. Those 4.65 million trucks represent the entire vehicle population that could be subjected to an inspection.

Simple math indicates that the inspection rate of the entire available vehicle population is 3.9 percent. To put it another way, a Mexican truck has a 96.1 percent of not being inspected at any border crossing in the country.

"Outrageous is the best way to describe the U.S. Department of Transportation's nearly simultaneous announcements that all safety and security issues with Mexican motor carriers have been resolved, and that 100 of these trucking companies will now be given U.S. DOT's blessing to operate throughout the United States," said OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer.

Spencer said the safety and security of U.S. motorists and truckers sharing American highways with trucks from Mexico can no more be assured now than it could in 2002 when Congress overwhelmingly told the Bush administration that safety had to be assured before the border opens.

"While some of the safety shortcomings of trucks from Mexico have seen improvement since then, many others have not," he said. "While DOT has maintained for at least a decade that the licenses used in Mexico to drive trucks are the equivalent of the American CDL, that's never been true."

Spencer said not only are U.S. regulations on Americans more stringent in terms of verifying that a driver has been tested, but U.S. licenses can also be verified to show driving history, violations and compliance of any vehicle driven going back even a decade or longer. 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 along as your arm.

Mexico has never had specific drug testing regulations or hours-of-service rules for its drivers that could be verified or enforced and still doesn't.

"There is simply no way anyone can know whether a truck driver coming from Mexico entering the U.S. has been awake two hours or two weeks when they clear the border," he said. "And if the safety and security shortcomings still remaining at the border aren't enough to set off alarm bells - once a truck from Mexico clears the border, enforcement of rules covering international shipments and authority are non-existent."

Spencer pointed out while Congress directed that states adopt laws on trucks with international shipments, few have done it and not a single state enforces these laws nor have their law enforcement officers ever been trained on what to enforce and how to assure compliance with U.S. law.

"Not only has the administration largely ignored the intent of Congress when specific criteria for Mexican trucks were spelled out in the 2002 legislation, it has totally ignored lawmakers admonishment that no taxpayer funds be spent in reviewing or processing applications of Mexican trucking companies," he said.

"Clearly, the agency has reviewed hundreds and Congress is still waiting on verification of safety systems that are up and running."

The Association is taking a long hard look at ways the pilot program can be reined in.

"We're looking at options now, Spencer said. "We feel DOT is over-stepping its bounds with this pilot project and they may very well be over-stepping Congressional mandates.

"We're going to look at all other options we can to put a stop to this."

 - By Jami Jones, senior editor