DOT Cooking its Stats to Make Mexican Trucks Look Safer

Cross posted from DailyKos

Despite a massive public outcry, and against the bipartisan will of Congress, the Bush administration will likely sneak the first Mexican trucks across the border in a week or two. Laws be damned, security be damned, public safety be damned.

Don't expect brass bands and flag waving. From the very beginning, the DOT has tried to run this sham "pilot project" under the radar. The first trucks over the border will likely be well inside the U.S. before their certification is even announced. The reason is simple: Allowing Mexican trucks onto U.S. highways violates a 2002 law that, according to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, "prohibited DOT, and more specifically FMCSA, from using funds to review or process applications of Mexican motor carriers seeking long-haul operating authority until 22 preconditions and specific safety requirements were met."

When confronted by the Teamsters Union and other public safety groups, such as Public Citizen, the Bush administration and its cronies shout racism and point to inspection data showing that Mexican trucks are just as safe as U.S. carriers. But a closer examination of the data raises serious questions.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's NAFTA Safety Stats Web site, inspections of Mexican trucks within the border zone have increased 212% from 2001 through 2005. However, the actual number of Mexican trucks operating in the border zone increased only 60.6%.

How is this possible? Because the only trucks allowed to drive from Mexico into the border zones are short-haul drayage trucks. These trucks make multiple trips a day across the border, hauling the cargo dropped off by Mexican long haul trucks south of the border to long-haul U.S. trucks in the commercial zones.

It's fairly obvious that the DOT is cooking its stats by inspecting the same trucks over and over again. If a truck passes a safety inspection at 10 a.m., how likely is it to fail by 1 p.m.? Is it any wonder then that U.S. and Canadian trucks taken out of service average around 6% a year, but the rate of Mexican trucks taken out of service average around 1%?

Where the true failures show themselves is in driver stats. For example, the average percentage of all truck drivers taken off the road for not having a commercial drivers license is 3.44%. For American drivers the rate is 3.27%. For Canadian drivers, the rate is 0.85%. For Mexican drivers, the rate is 22.6%.

Safety is not a partisan issue, it is not a race issue, it is a common sense issue. But at every turn, the department, encouraged by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bush's big corporate buddies, has done everything it could to obfuscate the Mexican government's and the FMCA's shortcomings.

Their goal, plainly stated, is to make cheap imports cheaper.

Is your family's safety worth a few extra pennies of profit?

Unfortunately, to the Bush administration, the answer is "yes." Rather than go through the regular process for department pilot projects, "this pilot program is intended to serve as a show-piece under NAFTA in order to permit the Secretary to proclaim victory and declare the entire Southern border open to unfettered long-haul truck commerce before the end of 2008," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, in her testimony before the Senate's Subcommittee on Transportation, HUD, and Related Agencies.

At the outset, the DOT's recent announcement appears to be a calculated, cynical move intended to ensure that the border is open to all commercial traffic regardless of the implications for highway safety. It is no coincidence that the Secretary of Transportation announced a limited pilot program that includes just 100 hand-picked Mexico-domiciled trucking companies and a test period that will conclude in just 12 months. This select group of motor carriers most likely will not be representative of all Mexico-domiciled companies, vehicles and drivers that will be allowed across the border once the pilot program is completed and prematurely declared a "success." The abbreviated 12-month duration of the pilot program is shorter than any previously considered or authorized FMCSA pilot program and only one-third of the three-year maximum time limit allotted by Congress for such programs in current law. As a result, there is no possibility that this pilot program will achieve the goal of collecting sufficient safety data to allow for accurate and reliable analysis of the safety issues at stake.
(Emphasis added)

It is apparent that this pilot program is not really a pilot program, and thus does not comply with 49 U.S.C. 31315(c), which establishes a template for all pilot programs conducted by DOT. In addition, Section 350 does not permit it. Section 350 makes no exceptions for compliance with all elements of its requirements in subsections (a), (b) and (c). These obligations must be fully complied with before ANY truck is permitted to cross the border. What Secretary Peters proposes is to comply with some parts of Section 350 and assert that the border can be open for that slice. Her proposal does not comport with the law.

...In order to serve the public properly and protect safety, we must avoid this "mission accomplished" mindset and deal realistically with the many safety issues that are yet to be resolved before the border is in fact ready to be opened to all commercial vehicles.

Time and time again, the department has lied, distorted and stonewalled.

At her press conference (in Mexico) announcing the program, DOT Sec. Peters said that "the Department's independent Inspector General has certified that each and every one" of the 22 Congressional mandates had been met. But the Inspector General was only required to review eight specific provisions and verify that FMCSA had taken sufficient action in those areas.

In his Senate testimony (pdf), Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel said "additional improvements are required in two of the eight...." And, he added, drug and alcohol testing issues require "continued attention." Part of the problem, it seems, is that there are no certified testing labs in Mexico.

And what of the remaining 14 criteria?

Section 350 is explicit. All 22 criteria must be met before the first Mexican truck can roll beyond the border zones. But don't expect a little thing like the law to stop this administration.

Why, it has even denied a Freedom of Information Act request for information on the program for more than four months, denying for weeks that it even existed.

Unfortunately it appears as if the DOT will win its race against legislation now making its way through Congress. Both chambers have drafted laws to starve this so-called pilot project. But a promised veto on the appropriations bill and slow movement in the House make it unlikely that new laws could be passed in time to stop the DOT from certifying Mexican trucking companies to operate in the United States.

According to the San Diego Union Tribune:

"At least on the House side, there doesn't appear to be any  momentum toward any kind of fast-moving legislation to stop the program," said Jim Berard, a spokesman for the majority on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The Bush administration is confident the program will go forward despite opposition from some lawmakers.

"We expect to give the first (Mexican trucking) company authority to operate approximately the end of April or early May," said Ian Grossman, a U.S. Transportation Department spokesman.

We need to tell the House to act now. Your safety, your family's safety is potentially at risk - if not this year, then next year when the DOT hands the keys to our highways to the Mexican government with few if any safeguards. Tell your representatives to support legislation to stop this fraud now.

Also appeal to your state legislatures and public safety authorities to monitor these trucks closely. It is clear that the DOT will not or can not do its job (think FEMA), so it is up to our state highway patrols and state lawmakers to do the right thing.

Tags: highway safety, NAFTA, Teamsters, transporation (all tags)


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