Every day thousands of trucks travel from Mexico into the United States, a visible sign of the increase in cross-border trade since the 1993 NAFTA agreement. But are these trucks a danger on US highways?
Five years ago, when the truck-access part of NAFTA was to take effect, the Clinton administration refused to allow Mexican trucks unlimited use of US roads, arguing that Mexico's truckers posed a safety hazard.
The administration had a point back then. Mexican trucks were not subject to regular safety checks; and many drivers were poorly trained, badly paid, and overworked.
But the safety record has improved. The Mexican government has passed laws to check truck drivers for drug or alcohol use and to set up roadside inspections of their vehicles. It also plans to require truckers to keep logs and drive only a specified number of hours per day.
Despite these steps, the administration again ruled on Jan. 1 that the trucks can't go beyond a 20-mile comercial zone along the border. Why?
First, legitimate safety concerns persist despite Mexico's clear desire to raise its standards. Mexican trucks that have been inspected at the border in recent years often have not fared well.
But if the United States, in line with its safety concerns, would institute a better-staffed truck certification program at border crossing points, many trucks coming from Mexico could be allowed to continue their commerce without stopping and transferring their loads to US carriers - a process that drives up costs.
Such a regimen would also give Mexican shippers a strong incentive to shape up.
But the task of enforcing US standards through more adequate border inspections is only half the story, if that. A second, more immediatly important reason the truck bar remains in place is US politics.
US labor unions, particularly the powerful Teamsters, staunchly oppose opening the border with Mexico any more than it is right now, NAFTA or not. The Teamsters union worries that more Mexican trucks on US highways mean less work for its members.
This concern rings loud and clear in Congress, the White House - and Gore campaign headquarters. Democrats, starting with the president, aren't about to risk losing labor support by doing what NAFTA requires.
The Mexicans are now poised to take their truckers' case to NAFTA's grievance process. They're likely to win. But that won't necessarily lower the political barrier in Washington.
That will be taken down when US leaders do the honorable thing by working with Mexican authorities to improve safety standards, and thus show more respect for the international agreement they've ratified.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society