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Feb. 6, 2001

Grave Danger Posed by Unsafe Mexican Trucks; U.S. Should Maintain Limited Access to U.S. Highways

NAFTA Panel Expected This Week to Order U.S. to Open Its Highways to Mexican Trucks or Face Trade Sanctions

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Although a trade panel is expected this week to order the United States to permit access to all U.S. roads by Mexican trucks, the U.S. should continue to limit access because of the grave dangers many Mexican trucks pose to motorists on U.S. highways, Public Citizen has concluded in a report released today.

A North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) tribunal is expected to reject U.S. concerns about truck safety and order the U.S. to permit Mexican trucks to have full access to American highways. Currently, Mexican trucks are confined to a narrow, 20-mile commercial zone near the border.

The report, The Coming NAFTA Crash: The Deadly Impact of a Secret NAFTA Tribunal s Decision to Open U.S. Highways to Unsafe Mexican Trucks, documents that Mexico's truck safety regulations are virtually non-existent, that Mexican trucks have far more safety deficiencies than U.S. trucks, that a disproportionate number of Mexican trucks crossing the border have been taken out of service for serious safety violations, and that the U.S. lacks enough inspectors to check incoming trucks. Further, Texas border communities within the commercial border zone in which Mexican trucks are permitted have seen a dramatic increase in highway fatalities and serious injuries from crashes involving trucks with Mexican registrations, the report found.

"It is imperative that we continue to limit access for these dangerous trucks even if it means paying trade sanctions," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. "It is impossible to inspect every truck, and we cannot knowingly put drivers at risk by inviting dangerous rigs onto U.S. highways."

Added Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, which produced the report, "This ruling once again provides a dramatic example of how trade agreements such as NAFTA reach far beyond appropriate commercial issues and threaten vital domestic health and safety standards, even when these standards are applied equally to domestic and foreign commerce."

How the Bush administration handles the NAFTA truck issue will have a dramatic impact on public opinion about President Bush and NAFTA, the report concludes. Many in the corporate business lobby that financed Bush's campaign are eager to see Mexican trucks gain full access to U.S. highways. However, many other Americans -- particularly in Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico -- are legitimately concerned that a flood of unsafe, unregulated freight trucks from Mexico would pose a significant threat.

The NAFTA truck issue has percolated for years. A provision in NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, required the United States to allow Mexican trucks to cross the border and access all border-state roads starting in 1995, and to drive anywhere in the country by January 2000. The Clinton administration for five years recognized the danger the trucks posed to the public safety and maintained their limited access to a narrow zone at the border.

Mexico challenged the U.S. government's action before a NAFTA enforcement tribunal. On Nov. 29, 2000, the panel issued a preliminary ruling declaring that the United States was violating NAFTA by refusing to allow Mexican trucks to cross the border and rejecting U.S. safety concerns raised as a defense. The ruling expected this week is final and is not expected to vary significantly from November's ruling.

Mexican trucks that operate in the U.S. must apply for operating permits from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The preliminary NAFTA ruling noted that the U.S. could use this system to apply its safety standards but that the U.S. also must meet NAFTA s requirement for open access for Mexican trucks. The only way to ensure U.S. standards are being met would be to check every truck that crosses the border, and this is not practical. The report found that:

  • Fewer than 1 percent of Mexican trucks entering the U.S. are inspected, but 35 percent of those are taken out of service for serious safety failures (46 percent higher than the out-of-service rate for U.S. trucks). The U.S. has neither the facilities nor the personnel to inspect every truck;
  • Although Mexico pledged to institute a comprehensive truck safety program when NAFTA went into effect, seven years later, that country still has not instituted an effective system. The new rules now in effect are voluntary and are to be phased in over the next two years;
  • Mexico does not limit the time drivers spend behind the wheel. Some drivers report being required to drive 36 hours straight with just a six-hour break before returning to the road;
  • Mexico's hazardous materials control system is much laxer than the U.S. system. Many substances that must be identified in the U.S. need not be marked with an official placard in Mexico;
  • Mexican truck carriers last year were more than three times as likely to have safety deficiencies as U.S. carriers, and Mexican trucks are twice as likely to be deficient in one safety category; and,
  • When Mexican trucks are inspected at the border, the inspections are often not full inspections, but instead involve mere visual checks.

The report urges the U.S. to press Mexico to fulfill its promise to implement and enforce adequate truck safety standards. Mexico also needs a real inspection system, better safety standards for trucking companies, hours-of-service rules for drivers and more stringent regulatory oversight. Further, the U.S. must dramatically increase border inspections and should heavily fine Mexican motor carriers found operating outside permitted areas in the U.S.

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