San Diego Union-Tribune

May 11, 2001

Safety of Mexican trucks is questioned
    Study says more inspectors needed before crossings start 


WASHINGTON -- The federal government should add dozens of safety inspectors at the Southwest border before the United States is open to Mexican trucks in January, the Transportation Department's inspector general said yesterday.

Investigators also found that Mexico has "made progress in establishing safety standards," although far more Mexican trucks than U.S. trucks are pulled out of service for safety violations.

Some in Congress, consumer groups and organized labor oppose opening the border because of safety concerns with Mexican trucks.

"The inspection efforts at the border are nowhere near enough to protect the safety of the American traveling public," Teamsters President James Hoffa said.

Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., who requested the study with Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., said he remained "concerned that the safety of U.S. highways and towns will be compromised by unsafe Mexican trucks if the border is opened."

Oberstar said the findings reveal continuing flaws in the inspection system.

"We need more inspectors and inspection facilities at the border to ensure unsafe trucks do not come into this country and endanger American lives," Oberstar said.

The inspector general's report said authorities should increase the number of federal inspectors from 60 to 139.

President Bush has proposed spending $100 million for more inspectors at the border. But his plan for 80 additional "law- enforcement personnel" includes only 40 inspectors of commercial vehicles, the inspector general's report said.

The investigators' report also suggests that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration complete a comprehensive plan to "ensure safety." That plan has not yet been finished, officials said.

California has full-fledged inspection stations at Otay Mesa in San Diego and in Calexico, but Texas, Arizona and New Mexico lack permanent facilities, the report states.

Mexican trucks now are limited to a roughly 20-mile zone north of the border. Once they reach the end of that zone, their loads are transferred to U.S. trucks.

As of Jan. 1, Mexican trucks will have full access to U.S. highways once they meet U.S. standards, Bush said.

The percentage of unsafe Mexican trucks pulled out of service decreased from 44 percent in 1998 to 36 percent last year, officials said.

Earlier this year, Bush overturned President Clinton's 1995 order that denied Mexican access to this country's highways.

An international trade panel ruled in February the United States had violated free trade rules by improperly restricted access to its highways beyond a small commercial zone near the border for more than five years.