Listen to opponents of cross-border trucking and you might envision hordes of unsafe, broken-down Mexican rigs swarming across the border. That hardly seems to be the case, given a recent report from the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Servicios Refrigerados Internacionales, one of the participants in the cross-border pilot program. (Photo Courtesy
Servicios Refrigerados Internacionales, one of the participants in the cross-border pilot program. (Photo Courtesy

Under the North America Free Trade Agreement, the border was supposed to open to long-distance commercial traffic in 2000. The opening was stalled, thanks largely to U.S. labor unions, owner-operator and citizen advocacy groups that oppose free trade, fear the loss of U.S. jobs, and say Mexican trucks are unsafe.

Finally, in 2007, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration started a pilot program to test its ability to ensure cross-border Mexican trucks were safe. After Congress killed the program, Mexico levied retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods, leading to a second pilot program, launched in 2011.

The problem is, neither pilot program has attracted enough Mexican carriers to figure out whether cross-border trucking actually would be safe. An independent U.S. investigation in 2008 showed that the Mexican carriers in the first program had not had any accidents and had much lower out-of-service rates than U.S. carriers, but investigators also noted there wasn't a large enough sample to consider it statistically accurate.

A recent report on the current program by the DOT IG again finds that there are too few Mexican carriers participating to get a true picture.

The FMCSA estimates it needs at least 46 Mexican carriers participating to reach its target of 4,100 inspections over three years. But the IG report said the agency had approved only four applications for authority and completed just 89 inspections, said IG's Joseph Come.

After the report was issued in mid-August, several more Mexican carriers were cleared. At press time there were a total of seven, and they had accumulated 132 inspections.

The IG found some other problems, many of which the agency is already working on:

* Drivers weren't properly tested for English proficiency. The agency has since revised its procedures.

* A need for regular checks of electronic data monitoring. FMCSA said the system was in place and there had been a couple of instances of mis handling of data, but that had been corrected.

* Monitor carriers for cabotage violations. With the low participation, FMCSA does this manually. Once there are more, they will give equipment vendor Teletrac the authorization to begin automated monitoring.

* Pre-authorization safety audits need to make sure carriers complied with driver license requirements. The FMCSA says it has other processes that cover this issue.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a staunch opponent of cross-border trucking, said the report justifies the group's criticisms.

"This report says what we've been saying all along, that among carriers based solely in Mexico, hardly any are interested in operating in the United States," said Executive Vice President Todd Spencer in a statement.

OOIDA is part of the reason. Opposition from it and other groups keeps the cross-border program in constant jeopardy of being cancelled or suspended.

And it's not easy to get into the program. The vetting process is stringent, requiring on-site investigations by FMCSA staff for drug and alcohol testing, hours of service compliance, insurance coverage and driver qualifications, and numerous other requirements.

Would you put your company through all that for a program that may or may not be there next year?

HDT Washington Editor Oliver Patton tells me that as IG reports go, this one was pretty tame. It uncovered some issues that need to be improved, and the agency is addressing them. Isn't that the purpose of a pilot program? Let's allow the agency to finish testing its procedures to make sure Mexican carriers can run cross-border safely and live up to the terms of the 1994 NAFTA agreement.

With reporting from Oliver B. Patton, Washington Editor

From the October issue of HDT