January 4 - January 10, 1996

We're Trucked

B y  J e f f  S m i t h 


JUST AS THE knee bone is connected to the thighbone, so too is Sonoita connected to Tucson, and sleepy Santa Cruz County to Pima, Maricopa, all of Arizona and indeed, the rest of the world...although for purposes of this week's lecture we're only concerned with the signatories to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

We have delivered ourselves of some Chicken Littlish warnings in this space, regarding the impending dangers of unsafe, uninsured and to some extent untutored Mexican trucks and drivers traveling the highways of Arizona and the other border states, under the first relaxation of regulations as part of NAFTA. The carnage I predicted would attend upon the opening of the international border to Mexican trucking did not take place.

Because U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena unilaterally postponed opening the border, in apparent direct defiance of the treaty. Despite the assurances Pena made in his visit to Nogales a few weeks previous--that everything was hunky-dory--the Secretary responded to 11th-hour protests by the Arizona Legislature, various citizen groups, the Teamsters Union and even the Mexican trucking industry.

All he could really do was say "time out," and hope for a miracle. Which is what he did.

All the State of Arizona could do is send its recently trained--but still undermanned--platoon of safety inspectors to the border to borrow a little work-space from the feds and check as many Mexican trucks as possible as they crossed the line. Mexican trucks have long been permitted to make deliveries within 25 miles of the border, and these are the trucks being checked. What was to have taken place as of December 18 was the unrestricted traffic of Mexican trucks throughout the four border states--Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. Pena's order has postponed that--though for how long?

The Arizona Department of Public Safety had its lads at the border early last week to simply enforce existing safety regs on the Mexican trucks that came through, and within hours they had 1,000 trucks backed up at the port of entry, and U.S. Customs--whose compound the state DPS guys were borrowing space in--pitched a hissy-fit and strongly suggested they take their show on the road.

What do these data tell us? Let's analyze.

• First, we know that 60 percent or more of Mexican commercial trucks do not meet minimum Arizona and U.S. safety standards.

• Second, we know that a majority of Mexican truck drivers do not have insurance or levels of training required to operate in the U.S. and cannot read road signs in English. Don't even ask about vehicle emissions rules.

• Third, we know that these things were known when NAFTA was being negotiated, and that they were ignored by both sides.

• Fourth, the above are matters of simple, documentable fact. The underlying truism we know in our guts is that they are not going to change until the basic character of Mexican government changes, and that order of change will proceed, if at all, at a pace commensurate with Darwinian theories of evolution. In other words, expect to see safe, clean Mexican freight haulers about the same time we start producing Homo sapiens with built-in cell phones.

THIS IS NOT bigotry, this is truth. The Mexican people are big-hearted, good to their children, generous and diligent. Their government is--and always has been--crooked, venal and utterly self-serving. And the government is the creature of the rich ruling class that owns the Mexican trucking industry. So don't expect that a few days, weeks, months or years in delaying the free traffic of Mexican trucks into the border states will result in fixing the unsafe hardware on Mexican trucks, or buying adequate insurance for Mexican drivers, or better training for those drivers, or teaching them enough English to follow the road signs.

It ain't gonna happen because that's not the way business is done in Mexico. Business is done in Mexico by bribe, by phone call from Rich Guy A to Rich Guy B to Rich Guy B's brother in the governor's office, or in the extreme case, simply by ignoring the law. It has worked this way, and worked just fine as far as the moneymen are concerned, for as long as Mexico has been a sovereign nation. And it isn't going to change because of NAFTA, especially when it's clear to Mexican industry that the framers of NAFTA, gringos included, simply winked at these safety regulations.

It shouldn't take very long for someone to raise hell over Pena's postponement. I called several state and federal offices, but with Christmas pending, nobody was in. Debbie French of the ad hoc group Arizonans for Safe Roads was in, and she just laughed, though somewhat bitterly.

"They've opened the Pandora's Box and the creature is out," she said. She didn't expect the creature would be roped and corralled again. Indeed it only gets worse. Five years from now, at the dawn of the new millennium, Mexican--and Canadian--trucks will have access to every road in the U.S. It's not bloody likely that Federico Pena can hold out against that. Or that he wants to. Somebody will sue him, or the Mexican government will protest, and NAFTA will prevail.

I asked French if in all the discussion of safety and economics revolving around NAFTA and truck traffic, anyone had estimated what it would cost to keep doing things the way they've been done in the past: transferring freight to American carriers at the border. She had heard of no such calculations.

But it would be worth doing them. If we really are concerned about keeping our highways as safe as possible.

Because--and here French coyly gives us a peek under the lid of another Pandora's Box--not only are Mexican and Canadian trucks due to be given free access to all the United States five years from now, under 'harmonization' plans being devised to make trucking regulations consistent throughout NAFTA territory, those trucks likely will include triple trailer rigs, and loads up to 132,000 pounds of gross vehicle weight. That's compared to the U.S. limit of 80,000 pounds today.

If your dreams are troubled by visions of high-balling Dina diesels with no front brakes and drivers full of amphetamines bearing down on your Yugo, picture that same stoned driver staring out from under the dingle-balls around his windshield...only this time with three trailers strung out behind him like a choo-choo with no rails to guide it, weighing nearly twice the typical American 18-wheeler.

And against this nightmare we won't even have Fife Symington III and the Teamsters' Union to guard us. Because the local truckers and the western governors have been pushing for a relaxation on truck weights, lengths and multiple-trailer rigs independent of NAFTA. If the new rules are adopted for domestic truck traffic, the old strict standards cannot be imposed on Mexican or Canadian trucks. Because theoretically all the same laws, whether safety laws or size limitations, apply equally to all NAFTA signatories.

Mexico and Canada already have the size end of things covered: their trucks are heavier and longer than anything currently legal in the U.S. What they don't have covered, Mexico at least, is the safety angle. That's the part that costs a lot of money without offering direct economic payoff to the owner.

It seems that since the U.S. already has signed the NAFTA treaty, we have fumbled away our legal opportunity to tie Mexican truck safety to economic incentive. It may be, despite Pena's stopgap solution, that it will indeed take a few school buses full of dead kids, flattened by runaway Mexican trucks, to bestir the powers what am.

Even given those dire eventualities one wonders what can be done. What sort of success would you predict for an Arizona family suing over the death of a child, against a Mexican trucking company with its assets in a Swiss Bank?

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January 4 - January 10, 1996

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