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Bush Bush Administration Receives Failing Grades on Compliance With Congressional Safety Mandates for Mexico-Domiciled Trucks

June 20, 2007Bush Bush Administration Receives Failing Grades on Compliance With Congressional Safety Mandates for Mexico-Domiciled Trucks

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen*

On May 24, Congress approved provisions in a supplemental Iraq funding bill to ensure that any pilot program to allow Mexico-domiciled trucks full access to the nation’s highways would not circumvent U.S. safety standards or congressional oversight. These provisions, signed into law by the president, require the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to assure compliance with all applicable rules and regulations concerning the formulation of pilot programs and cross-border trucking. They require Mexico-based trucking companies and trucks to comply with all applicable U.S. laws and safety standards. And finally, they require the administration to ensure that the operation of these trucks in the United States would not have a negative impact on safety.

Congress had passed legislation in 2001 that put a premium on safety before opening the southern border for long-haul trucks. But in 2007, the Bush administration decided to ignore the law and rush through its demonstration project. Congress felt compelled last month to pass a new law to ensure that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which is responsible for implementing the administration’s cross-border pilot program, would obey the law. In the Iraq War supplemental bill, Congress mandated a number of requirements that the agency is still flagrantly ignoring.

In fact, the administration brazenly pushed forward without meeting many of the provisions, publishing a notice in the Federal Register on June 8 about its pilot program. It essentially declared that it had met all of the congressionally mandated safety requirements to open the southern border. But the report we release today identifies every provision of the law that FMCSA is not complying with. We’ve graded FMCSA on its compliance, and in nearly every category, the agency fails. In persisting with its current program, FMCSA is disregarding the will of Congress and the safety of the American people. 

For example, FMCSA has not provided sufficient opportunity for public notice and comment on its pilot program. It is allowing only 20 days notice – ten days less than the standard – prior to requiring submission of public comment.

The agency has also not provided the public with sufficient information about the program. DOT Secretary Peters even initially denied the existence of a pilot program, and FMCSA has refused since October 2006 to provide records in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety or respond more recently to a similar congressional request.

The agency has not complied with the requirements found in section 350 of the Fiscal Year 2002 DOT Appropriations Act on the Safety of Cross-Border Trucking. These deal with important safety issues, such as bus inspection facilities, a comprehensive database of driver violations while operating in the U.S. and hazardous materials transportation.     

FMCSA has failed to show how the demonstration project meets most elements required for pilot programs. Specifically, it has shown no plans for scientifically rigorous data collection and analysis, no method for safety comparison and no assurance of statistically valid findings. The agency has not published any oversight plan to ensure the safety of either the public or project participants, and has shown no intent to file a report about the project with Congress – all specific statutory requirements.

The agency has also failed to keep its promise to inspect “every truck-every time.” FMCSA explains that participating trucks will not be inspected every time they cross the border. It will instead check the driver’s license and determine whether the truck has a valid 90-day inspection sticker. The DOT Inspector General has questioned whether even this superficial 15-second check will take place for “every truck, every time.” 

FMCSA has provided only limited information on topics about the demonstration project that the public needs in order to assess its safety. Its June 8 Federal Register notice provides no new details about safety audits or specific public health and safety measures. It barely addresses English proficiency compliance for drivers, specific standards to evaluate the pilot program and a list of or the basis for Mexican regulations that will be accepted by U.S. authorities as equivalent to U.S. regulations, even though they are not. Instead, the agency mostly provides assertions with little detail and few facts to support them.

Finally, the agency has failed to establish criteria that are subject to monitoring during the pilot program, such as mechanisms to determine whether there will be an adverse effect on safety, monitoring and enforcement to ensure compliance by participants and the use of a representative sample of Mexican-domiciled motor carriers.

Congress has very specifically required FMCSA to provide all of these answers. But the agency and the Bush administration are deliberately, knowingly and willingly violating the law. This lawlessness must not be allowed to continue. It is clear that FMCSA intends to justify the outcome of the pilot program regardless of any contrary evidence and ram through a major change in public safety policy regardless of the consequences.

The public deserves to know the details about a project that could kill or injure families driving on our highways throughout the country. Already more than 5,000 people are killed and an additional 112,000 are injured in truck crashes each year. The public deserves an honest, forthright government that obeys the law itself and enforces the law. FMCSA should not implement any cross-border trucking demonstration program until it can make the grade.

* Joan Claybrook was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 1977-1981.