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Feb. 7, 2001

Recent Mexican Trucking Rules Do Not Solve Serious Safety Hazards:

NAFTA Ruling Could Expose U.S. Public to Dangerous Cross-Border Trucks  


A final ruling was handed down February 6, 2001 following a complaint filed by Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in which Mexico argued that its commercial trucks should be allowed unlimited access to U.S. highways. A NAFTA arbitration panel, after meeting for months in secret, found that the U.S. must allow Mexican commercial trucks to carry cargo throughout the U.S. or else pay trade sanctions for our refusal to comply, regardless of a well-documented history of U.S. safety concerns.

NAFTA outlined an arbitrary schedule that allowed Mexican carriers limited access to U.S. border states in 1995 and access to the entire U.S. by January 2000. NAFTA also created cross-border working groups on vehicle standards and safety, and Mexico agreed to improve safety at home. But the safety provisions of NAFTA, predictably, have no teeth, because the timelines for both partial and full commercial access were not linked to any progress in the safety of Mexico's trucking fleet.

And the promised improvements have not been made. Due to the serious and unresolved concerns about the grave risk to U.S. motorists of crashes with dangerous, overloaded trucks, until the panel decision, Mexican trucks were limited to a small zone near the border. Last January, President Clinton explained that the Mexican highway inspections and monitoring system was inadequate to assure safety.

Although Mexican trucks in theory have to comply with U.S. law before they can cross the border, in practice the U.S. needs Mexico to improve safety at home because U.S. border inspectors cannot possibly check every cross-border truck. In fact, studies by the Department of Transportation Inspector General and the General Accounting Office showed that even though less than one percent of cross-border Mexican trucks were inspected, 35 percent of those trucks had to be taken out of service because of serious safety violations. For all of these reasons, the Clinton Administration's policy was that Mexican trucks would not be allowed full access to the U.S. until considerable safety and oversight improvements were complete.

Last July, the Mexican government finally established a set of fledgling "standards" for commercial trucks and the authority and guidelines for roadside inspections. But a majority of the new inspection standards for critical items such as tires, headlights and hazardous materials are merely voluntary in the first year. Even once they become mandatory, the new rules are far from comprehensive, and in many cases they could provide legal cover for very dangerous practices.

The rules provide the basis for roadside inspections only on Mexico's federal highways-- only 10 percent of Mexican roads-- without additional money for inspectors or inspection sites. Until a system of privately owned inspection areas is established, the rules say that inspection checks will be "random" and done by "General Road Inspectors." There is no mention of special training programs or of any increase in the number of safety checks near border areas.

I. Summary of Flaws and Omissions in the Recently Enacted Mexican Rules

When the final ruling was announced, the United States Trade Representative stated that President Bush supports allowing the Mexican trucking fleet unlimited access to the U.S. Public Citizen examined the new rules issued by Mexico to ascertain whether they are likely to reduce the risks posed by a fresh onslaught of Mexican trucks. Across every category, researchers found, the rules come up short.

A. General Problems:

  • Industry Wrote the Rules: Industries that will profit from the lack of adequate safety rules for cross-border trucks had a heavy hand in crafting the regulations. The second and third pages of the Mexican government's new rules identify the participating groups as the National Association of Producers of Buses, Trucks, and Tractor Trailers, the National Chamber of Motor Transport Hauling, the National Chamber of Rubber Industry, the National Chamber of Iron and Steel Industries, and the National Association of the Chemical Industry, as well as about twenty other companies and industry alliances.

  • Very Limited Application: Only a very small portion of the roads in Mexico are part of a national set of highways and thus under federal oversight. Over 90 percent of the surface mileage in Mexico on which trucks operate are under provincial and local jurisdiction. Trucks on these roads are not subject to inspection under the new rules.
  • Severe Time Limits on Inspections: Although the new inspection process requires 31 separate equipment checks, with more than 143 actions to test components of the truck, the rules state that the maximum time for an inspection of a general cargo carrier is 30 minutes, while an inspection of a hazardous materials carrier is limited to an even less generous 20 minutes. In the U.S., there is no time limit for inspections, and discovery of a serious infraction may trigger a comprehensive safety inspection, which can take hours.
  • Total Lack of Monitoring and Oversight: Although creation of a joint U.S.-Mexico database is in progress, it is years from completion. Company and driver safety records will be difficult to track until much better systems (that include roadside compliance data) are developed and fully implemented as an enforcement and monitoring tool.

    Still No Hours-of-Service Limitations: Hours-of-service regulations limit the number of hours that commercial drivers may spend behind the wheel of large, dangerous trucks and have been a focus of safety efforts in the U.S. Mexico has no limitations in this area whatsoever. In fact, Mexico's new rule on logbook inspections states that "The driver's hours of service is designed by company, according to its needs." This statement surely was enshrined in regulation by companies that profit by maintaining control over their workers' hours and, in context, evinces a near-total disregard for the safety of other drivers on the highway.
  • Two-Year Across-the-Board Exemptions for New Vehicles: New vehicles are exempt from all standards and inspections for two full years from the date of manufacture.
  • Safety Problems Are Treated in Isolation: The rules do not work cumulatively, so vehicles with multiple, but borderline, safety problems will be able to stay on the road.
  • The Deterrence Effect of Fines is Unclear: Although fines are authorized, the rules do not state their amount or consider their deterrent effects against industry profits.

II. Severe Safety Defects Are Systematically Overlooked by the New Rules

To fully convey the serious limitations of the newly-created Mexican inspection and certification regime, we compiled a list of the safety failures covered by the regulations. The violations listed below would result in a vehicle's automatic or very probable removal from U.S. highways (called an "out-of-service order"). In Mexico these safety violations merely incur a fine and a promise to fix the problem within twenty days.

Sections of the Recent Mexican Regulations That Allow Unsafe Mexican Vehicles to Remain on the Road

For the following types of failures, an out-of-service order would be automatic under U.S. law, but in Mexico will merely incur a ticket and a promise to fix the problem within 20 days:

Transport of Hazardous Materials (Section 4.2)

  1. Incompatible materials in the same shipment
  2. Bulk loads improperly blocked or secured
  3. Identifications and warnings do not match material being transported
  4. More than 25% of anchoring components are missing
  5. Use of tanks not designed or authorized for transported products
  6. Escaping, leaking or spilling material from a transport tank
  7. Failure to carry the appropriate Transport Emergency information

Logbooks (Section 4.2)

  1. Non-existent


    For the following types of failures, an out-of-service order would be extremely probable under U.S. law, but in Mexico will merely incur a ticket and a promise to fix the problem in 20 days:

Lighting Systems (Section 4.1)

  1. Electrical system fuses missing and bridged instead with wire, aluminum or other materials
  2. Worn, exposed wires, missing insulation, wire twisted with other cables
  3. Headlights missing or inoperable when needed for climatological reasons or night travel
  4. Brake lights missing or inoperable

Windshield Wipers (Section 4.3)

  1. No windshield wipers and spray jets

Windshield (Section 4.4)

  1. Shattered or missing windshield

Tires, Inner Tubes and Belts (Section 4.5)

  1. Tires: walls cut or damaged, structural material exposed, not designed for highway use, tire tread separation, rubbing against adjacent surfaces, exposed radial belts, tires separating from wheels

Wheels and Rims (Section 4.6)

  1. Bent, broken or cracked wheel rims

Frames, Rails or Truck Chassis; Semi-Trailer/Trailer Frame (Sections 4.7 and 4.8)

  1. Cracked, loose, bent or broken frame rails, including those permitting movement of the chassis, and twists, bends and weaknesses due to cracks in the vehicle chassis

Fuel System (Section 4.9)

  1. Gas cap missing, filling pipe permits fuel spillage and fuel lines leak

Vehicle Load Securing (Section 4.1)

  1. Cracked, broken, stretched, twisted, worn, ruptured and knotted load securement chains, and cables and cut, burned or punctured synthetic belts
  2. Separation of load containment side boards or stakes, or the inadequate height of side walls which are unable to prevent load from falling

Exhaust System (Section 4.11)

  1. "Unsafe" mounting of, or broken or damaged parts of exhaust pipes for gases, smoke, and/or multiple collectors

Steering System (Section 4.12)

  1. Loose steering wheel or detached joints, missing U-bolts or securing bolts for steering column
  2. Steering gear box detached from its mounting on the chassis or a rupture in the gear box or its mounting brackets

Suspension System (Section 4.13)

  1. No springs on mechanical suspension
  2. Pneumatic suspension with cracked suspension frame or loose U-bolts.

Pneumatic Brake System (Section 4.14)

  1. Curled, obstructed or broken hoses or pipes
  2. Brake drums with cracks on their sides
  3. Detached or loosely mounted brake chambers
  4. More than 20 percent of the brake system's "push rods" out of adjustment

Hydraulic Brake System (Section 4.15)

  1. Inoperative brake linings (non-moving) and/or oil contamination of brake drums
  2. Missing brake lining segments

Electric Brake System (Section 4.16)

  1. Missing, non-existent, ruptured or defective brake on vehicle wheel

Cabin (Truck Cab) (Section 4.18)

  1. Inoperative instruments and interior controls, including inoperative air pressure gauge for air brakes, emergency warning signal, emergency brake control, seatbelts, fire extinguishers
  2. No seats
  3. No "speed control device" (throttle)

Although inapplicable to commercial trucks, the rules are also lax about
the safety of passenger buses:

Passenger Area in Buses (Section 4.19)

  1. No emergency equipment, no emergency exit, inoperative emergency exit, holes in bus passenger area floor, seats not secured to floor, no seatbelts, inoperative interior lights

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