Lost in translation

By Randy Grider
[email protected]

On Sept. 6 – a few hours before the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gave the green light to the cross-border trucking pilot program – I found myself on Capitol Hill attending a noon press conference.

It was comprised of three House members and representatives from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, the Truck Safety Coalition, the Teamsters and private citizen Sheryl McGurk, who had lost three family members in an accident with a Mexican truck driver. The group was calling for the Senate to stop the program.

The press conference was long on rhetoric and short on facts. While the group did raise some legitimate concerns – such as drug testing controls – the over-riding theme was that unsafe Mexican trucks will roam the country unchecked and Mexican drivers will take away American jobs.

On the issue of the safety of Mexican trucks, I asked U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, (D-Ore.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, about comparisons between Mexican and U.S. trucks’ out-of-service rates.

The reality is that in 1996, the out-of-service rate for Mexican drayage trucks was more than 40 percent. In 2006, Mexican trucks’ out-of-service rate at the border (where they are constantly seen by federal inspectors) was 20.9 percent, while the national out-of-service rate of U.S. trucks was 22.3 percent.

DeFazio admitted that Mexican carriers have learned to make their trucks safer to pass U.S. inspections, and trucks used in the pilot program will also probably meet the safety standards.

DeFazio added that he fears cherry-picked trucks and carriers will be used by the Bush administration to justify opening the border to all trucks when the pilot program concludes in a year.

He’s right: All Mexican trucks crossing our border – not just those in the pilot program – must be held to a high standard. The fact that the first authorized Mexican truck, a 2007 Freightliner driven by a Mexican trucker who speaks fluent English, crossed the border without incident Sept. 8 is proof that the program can work.

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Congress should now focus its energy and power on evaluating the program as it progresses and striving to ensure the safety of all trucks.

Then there’s the issue of Mexican drivers taking American jobs. The pilot program doesn’t change the legal status of Mexican drivers; they still wouldn’t be allowed to legally drive for U.S. carriers. In fact, lost in the hubbub of the cross-border controversy is the fact that very few carriers or drivers in either country have shown interest in actually participating in the program.

Fears that allowing Mexican trucks into this country will change the dynamics of the trucking industry are unfounded; the capacity just isn’t there. Mexico has only about 279,000 registered Class 8 trucks in the entire country.

During the press conference, Truck Safety Coalition Executive Director John Lannen talked about the more than 5,000 people killed each year in truck accidents in the United States.

Later McGurk described how three members of her family were killed in an accident with a Mexican truck driver that had allegedly stopped in the middle of a freeway with mechanical trouble. While I can sympathize – my mother was killed in an accident by an unsafe truck driver – I found it disturbing, used as it was to indict all Mexican truckers. That would be the same as me blaming the entire American trucking population for my mother’s death.

Ironically, Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA, stood by while the same tactics were used against Mexican drivers that have been used to defame members of his own organization so many times in the past.

Passions are running high in the trucking community because high-ranking people with their respective agendas know how to push all the right buttons. As far as the future of the pilot program, I would be afraid to make a prediction – politics and reality are traveling down very different roads.

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