- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2001

The Bush administration today will release regulations that will allow Mexican trucking companies to operate on U.S. highways without auditing their safety practices for up to 18 months.
The move fulfills a campaign pledge by President Bush to open American borders to Mexican big rigs, a part of the North American Free Trade Agreement that the Clinton administration, citing safety concerns, had refused to implement.
Currently, 14,000 Mexican trucks cross the border each day but are limited to a narrow border region. Now they will be able to apply for permission to operate in border states or across the entire country and will have to follow the same rules on safety standards and insurance coverage as American vehicles.
The rules, which will be published in todays Federal Register and finalized later this year, will "help ensure that all Mexican trucks will be subject to the same safety standards" that U.S. vehicles face, Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta said in a statement.
Opponents of opening the border, such as labor unions and consumer groups, are already raising the specter of unsafe Mexican trucks traveling U.S. highways.
The lax safety record for Mexican rigs in Mexico is undisputed. A 1997 study by the Department of Transportation found that roughly half of the Mexican trucks inspected at the border had to be taken out of service for safety reasons, and anecdotal evidence has turned up numerous safety problems with Mexican vehicles.
But the Bush administration, which has requested an additional $88 million in its budget to boost border safety measures, says it can keep unsafe trucks out of the United States and facilitate trade.
The trucking industry, which has long sought the opportunity to provide services between the United States and Mexico, applauded the new rules.
"Once the new regulations are in place, we look forward to doing our part in delivering further economic benefits on both sides of the border," said Walter McCormick, president of the American Trucking Association.
The same decision drew strong protests from the 1.5 million-member Internaional Brotherhood of the Teamsters, which represents truck drivers accross the country who fear losing their jobs to lower-paid Mexican workers.
The Teamsters, a core Democratic constituency, helped persuade the Clinton administration not to abide by the NAFTA provision that requires the United States to begin opening its borders to Mexican trucks in 1995.
"Were going to fight this thing the whole way," spokesman Bret Caldwell said.
Mr. Bush, who was familiar with the issue as Texas governor, promised early in the presidential campaign that he would reverse the Clinton administration stance.
The Clinton policy also drew heavy criticism from Mexico and its president, Vicente Fox, whom Mr. Bush will meet with today in Washington.
The new regulations will go into effect later this year after a 60-day comment period and possible revisions. They attempt to balance NAFTAs goal of boosting the efficiency of north-south commerce with the need to hold Mexican trucks to same safety standards that their U.S. competitors must meet.
Under NAFTA, the United States agreed to open the border states — Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California — to Mexican trucks by 1995. By 1999, all 48 continental states were to have been opened to big rigs carrying the goods to markets north of the Rio Grande.
The new rules allow Mexican companies to apply to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for permission to operate either in the border states or in the entire continental United States. Within 18 months, inspectors would audit the companies entire safety programs, such as drug and alcohol testing of drivers and maintenance schedules.
The companies would lose their U.S. licenses — after a warning period — if they did not fix their safety problems.
A spokesman for the safety administration, Dave Longo, said the same rules would apply to a U.S. company starting up in the United States.
He also said that government inspectors will pay close attention to individual Mexican trucks. Currently, 60 inspectors monitor the 80,000 American and Mexican rigs that cross the border 4.5 million times each year.
The administrations budget increase will permit the construction of new inspection facilities, Mr. Longo said.
"We have an inspection system [at the border] that works pretty well," he said.
Mexican trucks also will have to carry the same insurance coverage that American vehicles have. But the insurance industry is warning that the Department of Transportation will have to collect thorough information on Mexican vehicles so that insurers can offer them coverage in the United States.
"We dont currently have adequate information about these Mexican trucks," said Dave Snyder, assistant general counsel of the American Insurance Association.

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