ANALYSIS: In spite of efforts to sway data, cross-border program falls short

By Jami Jones, Land Line managing editor | 12/29/2014

The conclusion of the cross-border long-haul trucking program failed to prove that all Mexico-based motor carriers should be granted full access to U.S. highways, according to an audit on the program released by the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General.

In short, the lackluster participation in the program of only 15 carriers failed to prove that any and all Mexico-based trucks could safely operate long-haul in the U.S., the audit concluded.

The audit concludes that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration did provide sufficient monitoring and enforcement of the pilot program participants. But because the program lacked an adequate number of Mexico-domiciled pilot program carriers, the program did not result in statistically valid findings.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association agrees that the program fell short of proving whether Mexico-based trucks could operate safely long-haul in the U.S. But the Association also found other aspects of how FMCSA attempted to bolster its numbers disconcerting.

By the numbers
Before the program even started, FMCSA officials said the program would need 46 participating motor carriers to generate a statistically relevant sampling. The program had only a third of that participation. During the program, 37 motor carriers based in Mexico applied for authority to participate. Only 15 of those motor carriers were eventually granted authority.

That participation was low even though FMCSA made it easier by exempting the participants from U.S. CDL, medical certification, and drug testing rules.

The agency estimated it would need 4,100 inspections of the participating motor carriers to measure safety and performance. According to the audit, FMCSA reported a total of 5,545 inspections.

This is where some of the data gets sketchy.

The OIG’s review of the data showed that 27 percent of those inspections – 1,525 in all – involved pilot program trucks being driven by non-pilot program approved drivers. And of those inspections, 81 percent were Level III driver only inspections, assessing the drivers’ safety fitness.

While FMCSA excluded non-pilot program drivers from calculations of pilot program driver out-of-service rates, FMCSA officials explained that they wanted to include more data on the operational condition of pilot program trucks, including those operated by non-pilot program drivers.

Ironically, the agency did not widen the collection of crash data to include non-pilot program participating trucks owned by the pilot program participants.

The audit shows only one reportable crash during the pilot program by a pilot program participant with a participating driver and truck involved. However, the OIG also identified nine crashes that involved participant carrier non-pilot program trucks. All of those wrecks happened within the commercial zone. But the inspector general determined those wrecks were outside of the scope of the pilot program evaluation.

Another statistical aspect that failed to prove Mexico-based motor carriers could safely operate long-haul in the U.S. is the narrow participation of motor carriers and the actual miles traveled outside of the border states.

During the pilot program, 90 percent of the border crossings and 80 percent of the inspections were accumulated by two of the 15 participating characters.

“This skewed distribution of activity makes a statistical projection about the ability of Mexico-domiciled carriers to operate safely beyond the commercial zones along the United States-Mexico border unreliable,” the audit states.

In addition to very limited participation, a small percentage of the miles were generated outside the commercial zone. According to the audit, only 17 percent of the miles accrued happened while traveling outside of the four border states. And that does not take into account the miles traveled inside the border states, but outside the commercial zone. FMCSA did not differentiate between those miles in its reporting.

In spite of the additional inspection data, the OIG determined the pilot program lacked an adequate and representative sample of participant carriers to project these results across the universe of Mexico-domiciled carriers likely to engage in cross-border operations.

Skewing the numbers
In addition to beefing up inspection and trip data with non-participant drivers, FMCSA has also looped in another group of motor carriers in an attempt to prove that Mexico-based motor carriers have better out-of-service records than their U.S. counterparts. That group is enterprise carriers.

Enterprise motor carriers are a subset of operating authority granted by FMCSA – companies that transport international cargo (excluding household goods) and are headquartered in the United States, but are owned or controlled (greater than 55 percent) by a Mexican citizen or resident alien. International cargo must originate in or be destined for a foreign country.

FMCSA’s internal analysis of carrier data found that pilot program participant carriers, as well as an estimated 1,000 Mexico-domiciled and Mexican-owned (or enterprise) motor carriers with existing authority to operate within the United States, performed no worse than United States and Canadian carriers.

The OIG did not test the hypothesis that these groups were similar in safety performance, because the legislative language directing the audit did not allow the inspector general to review motor carriers outside of the pilot program’s participation.

That assertion hinges on an inconsistent application of out-of-service orders on U.S. motor carriers and Mexico-based motor carriers, according to research by the OOIDA Foundation.

The Foundation broke down the out-of-service rates reported by FMCSA that appears to show a higher level of regulatory compliance by Mexico-based and Mexico-owned motor carriers than their U.S. counterparts.

What the Foundation found is an inconsistency that exists between the three different types of motor carriers and how violations are treated. That inconsistency resulted in U.S. motor carriers being placed OOS at a much higher rate for the same violation.

One example is the regulation that drivers must be able to communicate in the country in which the driver/carrier is operating. If the driver is unable to communicate sufficiently, the driver is to be put out of service.

Mexico-based motor carriers had significantly more violations of the non-English speaking driver regulation in which the resulting out-of-service orders were not executed. Of the 82,841 violations reviewed by the Foundation, only 0.07 percent were placed out of service. Conversely, of the 3,335 violations found in U.S. based motor carriers, 71.95 percent were placed out of service.

Applying similar OOS rates to all three categories for the number of inspections with OOS violations, the Foundation found that Mexico-based motor carriers should have had a far higher driver OOS rate than U.S. carriers, had the drivers actually been put out of service at the same frequency.

For vehicle OOS rates, the trend held true. This time with U.S. motor carriers achieving lower out-of-service rates than both the Mexico-based and Mexico-owned motor carriers. U.S. motor carriers had a 21.11 percent OOS rate compared with 26.66 percent and 21.08 percent respectively to their Mexican counterparts.

OOIDA contends this inconsistency in the execution of OOS orders has to do with inspection procedures and logistics at the border. The inability to properly inspect trucks coming into the U.S. in a timely fashion without creating a backlog and the sheer lack of space to put that many trucks and/or drivers out of service keep the OOS rate artificially low.

Next steps
The next phase of the long-haul trucking with Mexico will involve a report to Congress that the agency plans to release in “early 2015.”

That analysis appears to be poised to point to the enterprise carriers as further proof – beyond the numbers the agency cooked up in the pilot program – of some sort of superior safety record.

“These operations allow for Mexican-controlled vehicles to operate long-haul into the U.S. As a result, FMCSA examined safety data from a population of more than 1,000 Mexico-domiciled or Mexican-owned motor carriers that conducted long-haul transportation beyond the commercial zones during the pilot program period. This included 351 enterprise carriers that received authority during this same 3-year period,” a letter from FMCSA Acting Administrator Scott Darling in response to the OIG audit responded.

“FMCSA believes this robust set of data to be representative of carriers likely to operate in long-haul operations. FMCSA was able to achieve statistically valid findings regarding the performance of Mexico-domiciled and Mexican-owned long-haul motor carriers, which support the pilot program analysis and conclusions. Based on this data, FMCSA finds that the records of these carriers indicate that they are as safe and, in most metrics safer, than U.S. and Canadian motor carriers.”

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