Inspector General wants good screening of Mexican trucks

March 16, 2007
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) will need to establish good screening mechanisms at the United States/Mexico border crossings to ensure that Mexican long-haul trucks are identified for required licensing and inspections before they are admitted to the United States.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) will need to establish good screening mechanisms at the United States/Mexico border crossings to ensure that Mexican long-haul trucks are identified for required licensing and inspections before they are admitted to the United States.

That was part of the messages from the Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General Calvin Scovel III in testimony before a Senate congressional committee March 8. He presented an audit report that evaluated the status of safety requirements for cross-border trucking with Mexico under the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), according to a copy of Scovel’s presentation posted on the agency’s Web site at

The inspector general’s (IG) office has not audited the Bush administration/DOT program announced recently for a year-long pilot trial that expands US cross-border trucking operations with Mexico. However, Scovel offered what he said were two immediate observations on the program, based on current and past work regarding the program: the screening comments and a recommendation that FMCSA establish clear objectives, milestones, and measures of success.

Scovel said that checking all the trucks crossing the border “could be problematic. Some 4.6 million commercial trucks entered the United States from Mexico in FY 2005. To screen out pilot program participants from among this high volume of traffic, it will need to simultaneously screen vehicles participating in the pilot program from among all commercial traffic crossing the border while also continuing to inspect vehicles and check drivers.

”Screening carriers participating in the pilot may very well require close coordination with Customs and Border Protection agents, who have initial interaction with these motor carriers. Our observations at one high-volume border crossing illustrate the challenge posed in screening pilot program participants.

”Hundreds of vehicles entered the United States at the high-volume crossing each day; FMCSA selected vehicles for inspection from the line of trucks waiting to exit the border crossing. However, once the vehicles were diverted, no FMCSA personnel remained at the screening point to monitor carrier traffic. Unless this practice is changed, or other procedures for screening are developed in conjunction with US Customs and Border Protection Service for the pilot program, FMCSA’s commitment to check every truck, every time, could be at risk.”

Another issue to be addressed is continued attention on drug and alcohol testing. The IG’s office noted earlier that Mexico lacked a certified drug-testing laboratory, but that drug and alcohol test-collection facilities in Mexico were sending specimens to certified labs in the United States. In a 1998 memorandum of understanding between DOT and its Mexican equivalent, the Mexican authorities agreed to follow collection procedures equivalent to those used by DOT.

In 2005, the IG’s office recommended that FMCSA establish milestones to ensure Mexican motor carrier drug and alcohol testing issues, such as the adequacy of controls at collection sites, are addressed. “Our current work shows that FMCSA has continued to meet with officials on these matters,” he said. “Given the announcement of the new pilot program, FMCSA should continue to work, in conjunction with other appropriate offices, to ensure that drug and alcohol procedures, such as the establishment of sufficient controls at collection sites, are adequate.”

He also said that the pilot program could provide a good opportunity to test FMCSA’s preparations, evaluate the agency’s performance, and assess the risks, if any, posed by opening the border. The agency should establish meaningful criteria for measuring the pilot program’s success and for determining whether to open the border to a greater number of Mexican carriers at its conclusion.

”Information provided to us to date does not include details of how the pilot program’s success will be evaluated,” he said.

In other comments, he said that his office remains concerned about states outside the border region and their procedures for obtaining information on the status of a carrier’s operating authority.

”For example, officials at two states contacted noted difficulties with determining operating authority because the police cars did not have Internet access for checking the status of carriers,” he said. “However, the two officials did not know about the 800 number from FMCSA that could be used for that purpose. At another state, the official contacted was aware of the 800 number but said few of the cars had cell phones to call FMCSA’s 800 number. In our view, these examples illustrate how important it is for FMCSA to provide continued training on the topic and to maintain a good information support system so that motor carrier enforcement officials have the information they need to identify carriers operating without proper authority.

The inspector general added that data from the agency’s current reviews and earlier reports point to continual improvement in the border safety program. For example, FMCSA has hired and trained inspectors as required so that the average number of inspections per Mexican motor carrier has increased over time. As a result, both the number of FMCSA inspectors at the border and the percentage of Mexican trucks taken out of service after inspection have improved “dramatically,” he said.

The audit work now underway found 254 FMCSA enforcement personnel at the border (which includes 128 inspectors), and the percentage of Mexican trucks placed out of service following inspections had dropped to 20 percent in 2005, a figure comparable to the out-of-service rate for US trucks.

A report issued in January of 2005 that FMCSA had in place the staff, facilities, equipment, and procedures necessary to substantially meet the eight specific criteria, but made four recommendations for improvement, which addressed actions relevant to the eight criteria. Of the four issues, two have been adequately addressed, he said.

FMCSA and the states have made significant progress in resolving problems associated with making sure all states can take effective enforcement action against Mexican motor carriers. One of the criteria subject to IG review calls for measures in place to ensure effective enforcement and monitoring of Mexican motor carrier licensing. The five states, which had not yet done so at the time of the last report, have adopted a rule requiring enforcement action against Mexican motor carriers or others operating without proper authority from FMCSA. As a result, all states can now place vehicles out of service or take equivalent action for operating authority violations. State officials also reported they are experiencing less difficulty in implementing these rules due to changes in the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance criteria and training provided by both the Alliance and FMCSA.

Scovel also pointed out that FMCSA has also taken action needed to make certain weighing scales are fully operational. In response to the IG’s recommendation to identify actions needed to make all weigh-in-motion scales fully operable, FMCSA said it would require each of the three border states (Arizona, California, and Texas) having weigh-in-motion scales to have a maintenance program included in their commercial vehicle safety plans.

Scovel said that improving the quality of the data used to monitor Mexican commercial driver traffic convictions in the United States needs to be improved, recommending strong follow-up action by FMCSA. As an alternate, interim solutions should be implemented if the plans cannot be completed in a timely fashion.

”Action is needed on implementing FMCSA’s policy from 2005 on compliance with motor vehicle safety manufacturing standards,” he said. “Our 2005 report discussed a pending rule that would have required all carriers operating in the United States, including Mexican motor carriers, to display a label that the vehicle was certified by the manufacturer as meeting all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards. In August 2005, FMCSA subsequently withdrew the rule based on its determination that it could effectively ensure compliance with the federal motor vehicle safety standards through effective enforcement of the current motor carrier safety regulations and policies. At the same time it issued internal policy to its staff on compliance with motor vehicle safety standards, which included instructions on how inspectors could use vehicle identification numbers to make this determination. FMCSA reported that certain procedures in the policy had been implemented; however, the policy noted that further guidance would be forthcoming before the policy would go into effect.

”To date, no additional guidance has been provided although FMCSA reported that they were reassessing whether future guidance is necessary. Prompt resolution of the issue and full implementation of this policy on compliance with motor vehicle safety standards will help ensure that inspectors are able to identify vehicles not meeting the requirements established for Mexican-domiciled carriers.”

FMSCA has issued a policy requiring Mexican-domiciled carriers applying to operate in the United States to certify that their vehicles were manufactured or retrofitted in compliance with federal motor vehicle standards applicable at the time they were built, and plans to confirm that certification during the pre-authority safety audit and subsequent inspections. “If FMSCA or state inspectors determine, through vehicle inspections or during a pre-authority safety audit, that Mexican motor carriers are operating vehicles that do not comply with the safety standards, FMSCA may use this information to deny, suspend, or revoke a carrier’s operating authority or certificate of registration, or issue penalties for the falsification.

”Further, SAFETEA-LU9 charged the administrator of FMSCA with conducting a review to determine the degree to which Canadian and Mexican commercial motor vehicles comply with federal motor vehicle safety standards. This review was to have been completed within 1 year of enactment—by August 2006. The review has not yet been released by the department.”