Mexican Cross-Border Trucking

This is a duplicate of a post I made to:

http://blog.heritage.org/2009/02/27/teamsters-and-congress-deliver-costly-protectionism/

It’s obvious to me that neither the author or those commenting know much about the trucking industry, or the way cross-border operations are handled. So, here’s a little education for you.

First, let me start by saying that cross-border trade is essential to our economy, and those of our neighbors.

Trucked freight across our southern border takes one of three paths:

1. Freight is loaded on a trailer in Mexico, brought across the border by a Mexican driver, and unloaded at a warehouse for transshipment north.

2. Freight is loaded on a trailer in Mexico, brought across the border by a Mexican driver, and the trailer is picked up by a US driver for final delivery.

3. Freight is loaded on a trailer in Mexico, put on a train, and is transported by rail to a point north of the border, usually within a reasonable distance of it’s final destination, where it’s then picked up by a US driver for delivery.

The type of commodity transported, delivery time requirements, and it’s final destination largely determine which method is used.

Now, let’s examine each type in a little more detail.

Our first method requires transloading of freight. This is not necessarily a bad or inefficient thing to do. Often a load of freight needs to be broken down and sent to multiple destinations — and to do this, it has to be transloaded somewhere along the line.

Our second method is the one most commonly in use today. It’s particularly used where loads cross the border in-bond; that is, they don’t actually clear customs at the border — customs clearance is done somewhere further on down the road. Depending on the commodity, it can take days to get customs clearance. (Note: when I say the load doesn’t “clear customs” at the border, it *doesn’t* mean that loads don’t get inspected; just that the required customs paperwork hasn’t been completed and processed through the system). This is actually a fairly efficient way of handling cross border whole truckload freight. Long delays at truck border crossings are common, and it’s far cheaper to pay a Mexican driver to sit and wait than a US driver. Also, since the delays for border crossing and customs clearance can be quite variable, doing a “drop and swap” helps drivers manage their allowable hours of service. A high percentage of cross-border freight uses this method.

Our third method is similar in most respects to the second, with the addition of a rail journey thrown in. The conditions are similar; however, while rail transport is somewhat cheaper than all-truck movement of freight, it’s also slower. The considerations of the second method as regards in-bond movement also apply. The percentage of freight handled this way is less than the first two methods, but is growing.

While I don’t have exact figures as to the percentages of each type of move, in my experience most cross-border freight uses the second and third methods. Shippers and their customers want their freight to move as cheaply and efficiently as possible, and they’ll choose whatever method is most cost-effective for their particular operations.

Now, let’s move on to the big issue that’s always raised by the groups challenging cross-border trucking — safety.

This is probably the only area that I’m in total agreement with these groups. The ultimate motive of these groups may actually be protecting US jobs, or whatever, but about safety they’re correct. Someone not intimately familiar with truck safety as I am, probably wouldn’t recognize most truck safety problems until they got run over. Let’s look at some of the reasons:

A. Mexican drivers are generally poorly (if at all) trained. Those I’ve spoken to have little or no grasp of many of the areas of knowledge needed for safe operation of a truck. I don’t regard even the existing US requirements for licensing as adequate, much less the informal methods practiced in Mexico.

B. Mexican trucks are largely poorly maintained. To the untrained eye, a truck might look ok, but in reality be a wreck waiting to happen. Even so, I invite you to go down to Laredo, Texas and see for yourself. Pick a good spot where you can observe truck traffic, and you’ll see for yourself.

C. Knowledge of the English language by Mexican drivers is often inadequate or non-existent, but is absolutely essential. (I once had a student from an East European country, who spoke fluent English. However, he had about a two second translation lag, which caused him to have a number of relatively minor collisions (mainly with fixed objects) because he’d miss turns. He ended up getting fired because of that.) Total lack of knowledge is downright dangerous.

D. Mexican drivers are poorly paid as compared to their US and Canadian counterparts. This provides an incentive for Mexican drivers to augment their income by operating outside the safety regulations, or by other than legal means — in other words, smuggling. Whether it’s illegal immigrants, drugs, or whatever, there’s a much larger financial pressure. Gangs operating south of the border are also known to take hostages to force such things, even if the driver doesn’t want to.

While congress and many of these other groups may be pro-teamster, the fact is that most cross-border traffic is handled by non-union drivers. NONE of the large truckload carriers, and very few of the small ones are unionized, and they haul the bulk of the freight moving over our southern border.

I hope I’ve been able to shed some light on the whole issue of cross-border trucking.

Comments and questions are welcome.

Update 1:  March 24, 2009

From : http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123790519596325581.html

“…Independent reviews of the program reported no major safety concerns over Mexican truckers in the program, but they also concluded that the pilot project was too small to draw any definitive conclusions.” (italics mine).

Sounds like we need a bigger pilot program to resolve the safety and security issues.  Such solution needs to be generally accepted as accurate, to eliminate the controversy surrounding the whole issue.

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8 comments so far

  1. JF on

    This is total bulshit. Do you have any idea of what the rate of car accidents is south of the border? Your impressions on how poorly qualified Mexican drivers are cannot be taken seriously, as they are just that: impressions of a prejudiced person. You don’t provide a single number to back your prejudices. Think about this: if Mexican trucks and drivers are more hazardous, why does it cost four times less to insure a truck (and its load) in Mexico as compared to the US?

    Complying with local transit and saftety rules should be the only requirement for a Mexican transport company to cross the border. Anything else decided in Washington is nothing but blatant protectionism.

  2. Zunt on

    I am in total agreement with you on the safety issues.

  3. truckied on

    JF,
    No, they’re not the impressions of a prejudiced person – they’re the results of questioning Mexican drivers. Here’s the question that I asked: What are the components that make up overall stopping distance for a truck? The correct answer is: reaction time, brake lag, and stopping distance. NONE of the Mexican drivers that I talked to got it right — and most didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. This is a basic question that any new graduate of a CDL school could answer.

    As far as the rate of car accidents south of the border, that’s not even relevant. I’m worried about truck-involved collisions north of the border. If you’d like numbers, go to the US DOT’s SAFER system website, and look up citations issued to Mexican carriers. It’s all there. Numerous equipment and driver qualification violations. I think that a Mexican driver being stopped in Ohio, and not even having a CDL would qualify as a major safety violation, wouldn’t you? Crashes being a relatively rare event, a better indicator of overall safety is inspection reports and citations issued.

    You might argue that I didn’t have a truly representative sample, since I only talked to some cross-border cartage drivers, but how dare you accuse me of prejudice.

    As far as insurance rates in Mexico vs. the US, that’s not a function of accident rates, it’s a function of tort law, and sympathetic juries making multi-million dollar awards in US truck collision cases.

    When it comes to regulations, you either didn’t read, or ignored the part of my post dealing with compliance, particularly with the CDL regulations, where I stated that I didn’t think the current US regulations went far enough, even for US drivers. The DOT is getting ready to issue some new regulations that should tighten up training requirements. You further seemed to ignore the part of my post dealing with the need for at least a basic fluency in the English language — which, incidentally, is a requirement for obtaining a CDL in the US.

    When NAFTA went into effect, nobody screamed about safety problems from Canadian drivers. The DOT in Canada, is at least as tough enforcing regulations as their US counterparts, and maybe even tougher. Given the junk trucks I’ve seen coming across our southern border, this obviously isn’t the case in Mexico. If you don’t believe me, go to Laredo and sit along Mines Road, and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

  4. Juanito on

    Dear truckie,

    I believe that your blog is actually misguiding its readers. Although the information you present regarding cross-border trade and freight is enlightening, I believe your comments give the impression that the main argument is about safety.

    The US Senate has not blocked Mexican drivers/trucks from driving on the US roads. Although groups like the Teamsters would like us to believe that this is the case and the move has been done with the safety of road users in mind, the fact is that the US Congress gave in an has halted a year-old pilot program that would allow up to 500 Mexican trucks and drivers to operate in the US. In this program, the Mexican trucks, and drivers, would be properly inspected in order for them to comply with the same requirements and specifications of their US counterparts.

    As you see the issue is not really about safety, it is about a group that would prefer not to have competition and is willing to misinform the public.

    Thank you for the opportunity of expressing my views.

  5. Jesse on

    While I have never driven a rig before I would consider myself exceptionally knowledgeable about cross-border trucking. My father runs predominently Calgary-Houston/Gulf Coast when the oilfields are doing well and when I was a kid I spent MANY summers and school breaks going with him.

    I don’t have much to add to you’re comments but I felt I should point out that you are neither a “prejudiced person” nor ill informed as JF asserts. I have a lot of Mexican friends, and stayed in Mexico backpacking for quite some time. Despite my general love of Mexicans I do find the state of most Mexican drivers to be appalling.

    It’s almost a catch-22, the good, trained Mexican drivers are still safety hazards because their rigs are so broken down (generally not their fault, maintaining your truck is expensive and any Mexican who tries to charge a reasonable rate for his services simply gets outbid by those willing to work far too cheaply).

  6. truckied on

    Juanito
    I don’t feel I’m misleading my readers at all. If you carefully read the post, you’ll see that I say “This is probably the only area that I’m in total agreement with these groups. The ultimate motive of these groups may actually be protecting US jobs, or whatever, but about safety they’re correct.”

    I have no objection to properly trained drivers operating properly maintained trucks in the US, wherever they’re from — but many of the trucks I’ve seen coming across the border aren’t, and drivers I’ve seen and talked to, aren’t either.

    Motor vehicle enforcement in Mexico is quite obviously lacking. If it wasn’t, those trucks would not be on the road anywhere.

    There is also the language issue. The DOT regulations clearly state under “General qualifications of drivers”, section 391.11 (b)(2) Can read and speak the English language sufficiently to converse with the general public, to understand highway traffic signs and signals in the English language, to respond to official inquiries, and to make entries on reports and records.

    As I stated in my blog: Knowledge of the English language by Mexican drivers is often inadequate or non-existent, but is absolutely essential. (I once had a student from an East European country, who spoke fluent English. However, he had about a two second translation lag, which caused him to have a number of relatively minor collisions (mainly with fixed objects) because he’d miss turns. He ended up getting fired because of that.) Total lack of knowledge is downright dangerous.

    To quote from: http://illinois.edu/blog/view?topicId=2029,

    “Drivers and regulators alike agree that a basic command of English is a business and safety necessity for all drivers – not just truckers.”

    Also, from that same source “…authorities gave them 25,230 tickets for insufficient English last year.”

    I’d say that constitutes a safety issue, and a major one at that.

    I also think this should cut both ways — drivers delivering into Mexico should be required to have the same fluency in Spanish, that the US regulations require in English. A language barrier is a safety problem wherever it is.

    So Juanito, while groups may have an ulterior motive, safety IS a valid issue, even if it’s being used for other purposes.

  7. Juanito on

    I think you have missed my point completely. The whole problem started because the US Congress has halted the pilot program that would lead to a few properly inspected Mexican trucks and drivers to deliver goods inside the US. Now, could you please let me know how banning a program that will ensure that Mexican trucks and drivers satisfy the same safety requirements as their US counterparts can be related to safety? If anything I believe this move is more related to trying to stop competition to US truck drivers before it starts.

    The move by the US Congress does not ban the Mexican trucks that are already allowed up to 20 miles inside the US. I can understand that this trucks might be deemed unsafe by US (and perhaps even by Mexican) standards. However, the US Government has not banned this trucks or drivers. Instead, it is opposing a move that would allow some registered and inspected Mexican vehicles and drivers to driver and deliver goods deep in the US.

    I believe that, if safety was a real issue here, the move would then press for thougher inspections of the trucks and drivers that are already allowed within the 20 mile band. While at the same time pushing for the pilot program to grow as quickly as possible in order to ensure that most (if not all) Mexican drivers and trucks are registered and inspected before driving anywhere inside the US.

    If safety is really an issue, why should the program be banned?

  8. truckied on

    Juanito
    I think you’re reading things into my post that aren’t there — or maybe I was insufficiently clear.
    I wrote “First, let me start by saying that cross-border trade is essential to our economy, and those of our neighbors. ”
    At NO time did I advocate the elimination of the pilot program. I DO think that there are safety issues that need to be addressed, and the pilot program is needed to do that.

    You wrote “I can understand that this trucks might be deemed unsafe by US (and perhaps even by Mexican) standards. However, the US Government has not banned this trucks or drivers.”

    A news story at: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601086&sid=aQbKUhGAWAEg&refer=latin_america

    says” The safety concerns are related in part to the transfer trucks that haul trailers across the border, Russell said. Somebody observing crossings at Laredo, Texas, would see old vehicles that belch black smoke, he said. Those aren’t the ones that would be on U.S. highways.

    “Those trucks are old — 10 to 15 years old — but they don’t leave the border area,” Russell said.”

    Neither the US or the Mexican DOT gotten these trucks off the road; and that’s where many of my concerns regarding safety come from. Voluntary compliance with all of the safety standards is necessary, wherever a truck comes from. There simply aren’t enough vehicle inspectors to inspect every truck on the road. If the DOT were to inspect every truck coming across the border, they would a) be accused of targeting Mexican trucks, and b) would *really* slow down the flow of freight across the border, since even if they put every qualified vehicle inspector in Texas on the job, there would be huge delays.

    The pilot program has been successful in that the safety of trucks and drivers in the program have been on a par with their northern counterparts. I’m worried that standards won’t be maintained simply because of volume, and bad drivers and dangerous trucks will end up on our highways.

    This program is going to be reinstated simply due to diplomatic concerns, which seem to trump safety and everything else. Even the teamster’s political IOU from helping get the president elected can’t stop it, although they may manage to slow down full implementation for a while.

    I do believe that the concerns that I’ve raised have sufficient validity, to at least merit closely watching how things go.


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