Truckin’ Past Safety Regulations

It happens week after week in the nation’s capitol and often goes unnoticed by the media. After suffering a family tragedy, due to a preventable act of corporate negligence a group of Americans find one another in their grief and travel to Washington, hold a press conference with a supportive safety group, and visit their members of Congress urging corrective action.

A few days ago, it was the relatives of adults and children who lost their lives due to large truck crashes and the abysmal nonregulation of truck safety by the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Motor Carrier Safety (OMC). Their gathering in Washington, D.C., called Sorrow to Strength 1999, was sponsored by CRASH — Citizens for Reliable and Safety Highways (www.trucksafety.org).
Thirteen-year-old Ryan Hensley from Ohio spoke up: “My dad was one of over 5,000 people killed in a heavy truck crash in 1997 when a big-rig truck ran a stop sign and hit his car. Too many politicians take a lot of money from the trucking industry. What does the industry expect to get in return? Heavier trucks? Fewer safety inspections? More hours behind the wheel for tired truck drivers?”

A mass of documentation backs up Ryan’s lament. In April the Department of Transportation’s inspector general issued a report that tore into OMC for not enforcing safety regulations and not deterring repeated violations by some trucking companies with adequate fines and other sanctions.

Public Citizen issued a report in June titled Truckloads of Money for Congress, showing the trucking industry’s millions of dollars in political contributions to members of Congress by name and millions more for lobbying expenses. A flood of exemptions, waivers from existing federal safety requirements have ensued, along with blocking legislation to improve truck safety.

With more than 100 people killed each week in large truck crashes and nearly 3,000 injured each week, the venerable issues of inadequate maintenance and equipment, excessive hours of driving, overweight vehicles, and hazardous cargo violations remain largely ignored by the OMC. Its budget is tiny, its inspectors few, and its willpower flaccid. It is subservient to the giant trucking lobby in Washington.

Public Citizen’s Joan Claybrook wants the safety functions transferred from OMC, which she calls “a wholly owned subsidiary of the trucking industry,” to the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency, which she believes will pay more vigorous attention to this carnage on the highways.

As if the present situation on the highways were not bad enough, from south of the border there looms an even more horrifying prospect. The NAFTA trade agreement will allow Mexican trucks operating under even more neglected or reckless conditions to operate in the United States.

Under NAFTA, Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona were supposed to be open to Mexican trucking companies by December 1995. The rest of the country would be opened by January 2000.

This proved to be too much for Bill Clinton — the leading NAFTA booster — because he was told about the miserable condition of many aging Mexican trucks and did not want major crashes to occur before the 1996 elections. He stopped Mexican trucks from coming into those states beyond the border staging areas, even though this was a violation of NAFTA. The ban has continued since.

In Mexico, large trucks can weigh 175,000 pounds, compared to the 80,000-pound ceiling in the United States. And Mexican truck drivers can operate these giant trucks at age 18 without proving they are skilled in driving the particular rig and that they can handle the particular cargo. Also, insurance coverage is deficient. In the United States, drivers must be 21 years old and proficient with both rigs and cargos.

On June 25, 250 members of Congress, along with the Teamsters Union and numerous safety groups, demanded that Clinton continue the ban on such Mexican truck traffic.

The General Accounting Office and the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General have issued detailed warnings about the inadequate inspection facilities to monitor Mexican trucks in the border states.

The DOT report found that during 1997, 3.5 million commercial trucks entered the United States from Mexico through 28 border crossings. There were only 68 full-time federal and state inspectors to inspect those vehicles. Only half of 1 percent were inspected and of those, 44 percent were placed out of service due to serious safety violations. Mexican trucks are routinely violating U.S. and state axle- and gross-weight limits. Then there are the added problems of smuggling illegal hazardous waste and contraband into the United States.

Corporate lobbies behind NAFTA want Mexican trucks in the United States (the drivers get less than $10 a day) in order to also allow U.S. trucks to travel through Mexico.

These business executives should consider what they will see in the rear-view mirrors of their limousines in New York, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, etc., if they too don’t start demanding full safety inspection and solid operating standards, with insurance and legal authority, by the federal and state governments.

Otherwise there will be anxious motorists all across America, who can turn into angry voters.

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