The National Transportation Safety Board tackled highway transportation safety concerns related to the North American Free Trade Agreement last week in the third in its series of hearings on truck and bus issues in Los Angeles Oct. 20-22.

Under the terms of the 1993 NAFTA treaty, Mexican trucks were supposed to gain access to the four border states in late 1995 and access to the rest of the country in January 2000. The Clinton administration blocked the 1995 provision, and legislation currently in Congress would effectively block the January 2000 access.
A panel of witnesses testified before the NTSB about some of the major concerns that have kept the border closed: differences between countries regarding hours of service, the use of data recorders and the infrastructure of border inspections.
"There are over 400,000 crashes that occur every year on our highways involving large commercial trucks," said Jim Hall, NTSB chairman. "We owe it to all of our citizens to assure them that their safety will not be compromised once this phase of NAFTA takes effect."
According to the U.S. Customs Service, there were about 218,000 commercial passenger vehicle crossings from Mexico to the United States from June 1996 through May 1997. Federal Highway Administration inspectors in Texas and state inspectors in California conducted border safety inspections of 528 commercial passenger vehicles from January through May 1997. Approximately 22% of the vehicles were placed out of service for serious safety violations, such as steering or brake problems.
Those who do pass inspection often head for the hills. A DOT study conducted over a 30-month period found 105 Mexican trucks operating in the United States outside of the narrow commercial zones along the border to which Mexican trucks are currently limited.
Mexico declined to send government representation, but the Asociacion Nacioal de Transporte Privado did send a spokesperson. Leonardo Gomez Vargas responded to the statistics regarding Mexican truck out-of-service rates by stating that the private fleets -- which make up 40% of Mexico's trucks -- all meet the safety requirements of the United States and Canada. Most trucks found in the United States are not private fleet vehicles, but are drayage vehicles that haul trailers from one side of the border to the other. These drayage trucks are between 15 and 20 years old, are not well-maintained and often haul loads that exceed their ratings. Most private fleet trucks, on the other hand, are 5 to 7 years old, are equipped with current technology and are well-maintained, Vargas said.
Mexican fleets have also been working hand in hand with U.S. officials on hours-of-service regulations and logbook revisions, he said.
The overall consensus of the hearings was that while steps have been made to ensure safety on all three countries highways, more still needs to be done. Data recorders; hours-of-service regulations; insurance commonality; improved inspection facilities and inspector training; universal logbooks; compatible records and computer systems; and out-of-service rules are all topics that need direct handling.
The fourth and final NTSB truck safety hearing is scheduled for January 2000. It will cover commercial driver's licenses and medical issues.