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Highway Safety, National Security Are at Heart of Mexican Truck Debate

Nov. 27, 2001

Highway Safety, National Security Are at Heart of Mexican Truck Debate

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

The Senate?s Mexican truck provisions do not violate NAFTA. The real issues driving the legislation are highway safety and national security to protect the public.

To protect safety and security, certain questions must be answered before the border is opened. How thoroughly will we inspect trucks crossing from Mexico? Will we know when hazardous materials are being trucked into this country? Will we just take the word of a new trucking company that sets up shop in Mexico, applies for a license to operate in the United States and claims to be a well-run, safety-conscious carrier? Or will we physically inspect its facilities to ensure it is not a terrorist-run or unsafe outfit? The Senate-approved measure answers many of these questions because it provides for the orderly, safe and secure opening of the border. We strongly urge House and Senate conferees to adopt this measure and ignore the White House?s short-sighted opposition.

Here?s why a debate over Mexican trucking is also a debate over national security: If President Bush were to have his way, Mexico-domiciled trucks would be permitted to travel through the United States for 18 months based mainly on the word of Mexican trucking companies that their rigs are safe. A Mexican carrier could fill out a form and get permission to travel throughout the United States without any on-site verification of the carrier?s credentials for at least 18 months. This means that any well-financed terrorist cell could easily set up a company in Mexico and truck hazardous materials into the United States with little likelihood of a thorough inspection at the border. We need not expound on this scenario to understand how devastating it could be.

Further, it has been well-documented that the Mexico-domiciled carriers now allowed into the 20-mile border zone chronically fail to adhere to U.S. hazardous materials regulations. Carriers can exploit another loophole in U.S. law ? if after being granted operating authority, a Mexico-domiciled carrier decides to transport hazardous materials, nothing compels that carrier to alert the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. What a perfect opportunity for a terrorist. Again, this emphasizes the need for the kind of thorough, on-site inspections and border inspection facilities called for by the Senate.

A debate over Mexican trucking also means a debate over highway safety. Evidence exists that not only are Mexican rigs less safe than U.S. rigs, but Mexican safety regulations are lax. Mexico?s patchwork of poorly enforced standards is still being phased in and applies only to federal highways ? just 10 percent of Mexico?s roads. Safety defects that here would put a truck out of service (such as balding tires, exposed wires or leaking hazardous cargo) trigger only a ticket in Mexico. Mexico doesn?t cap the number of hours a trucker can drive, as the U.S. does, which means that bleary-eyed truckers can stay behind the wheel.

As we?ve said, the Senate plan does not violate NAFTA. NAFTA requires Mexico-domiciled trucks operating in the United States to meet U.S. safety standards. NAFTA?s arbitration panel ruled in February that to address safety concerns, the United States may evaluate Mexican carriers on a case-by-case basis and use different inspection and application requirements than exist for other carriers. The Senate does not hold Mexico to higher safety standards; it simply provides for comprehensive inspections to ensure trucks crossing the border meet U.S. safety requirements.

A truck crash is an equal-opportunity killer. Already more than 5,000 people are killed and another 140,000 injured each year in truck crashes in the United States. We shouldn?t invite more grief and devastation on the highways, and we shouldn?t help terrorists destroy our cities and families. NAFTA is a trade pact, not a suicide pact.