Older Mexican trucks may be polluting our air

A pilot program that allows Mexican trucks full access to American highways has prompted a barrage of protest. Some of the objections are reasonable, others seem rooted in baser motives.

There are reasonable questions about the safety of Mexican trucks and the rules governing Mexican drivers. Mexican drivers, for instance, aren’t required to rest as often as American drivers. They might have to follow American rules once in this country, but what’s to prevent them, critics ask, from arriving at the U.S. border already tired and then continuing to drive across this country?

Another concern is whether Mexican trucks will further foul the air in sensitive regions. Mexican trucks are older, on average, than their U.S. counterparts, and older diesel engines are much more polluting.

Many American truckers — especially those who operate as independent contractors — are worried that Mexican trucking companies will undercut wages, thus endangering American jobs.

The pilot program, which got under way this week, has also sparked anti-immigration forces into loud protests. In some cases, that appears to be little more than paranoia tinged with racism.

But concerns about safety, the environment and the impact on American jobs are real and will have to be addressed as this one-year program advances.

The official report on the program from the inspector general of the federal Department of Transportation says the agency has taken the proper steps to ensure that Mexican trucks operate safely. DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration plans to go beyond statutory requirements and will check every truck that enters from Mexico for safety. A similar effort is made with trucks crossing from Canada, which have had full access to American roads for years.

That sounds good, but will that rigorous examination always be possible?

There is always a danger that budget cuts, for instance, could cause the department to cut back on such inspections in the future. And will the federal government later try to shift the responsibility — and the cost — to overburdened border states already impacted by the federal failure to secure the borders?

One of the conditions of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was passed in 1994, requires that all roads in the United States, Mexico and Canada be open to carriers from all three countries. The United States has delayed opening the roads to Mexican trucking firms until now.

We support free trade, but it must also be fair. In addition, free trade should not come at the expense of safety and the environment. Participants in such arrangements as NAFTA should pull themselves up to the highest standards, not hew to the level of the lowest common denominator.

The pilot program is a good idea, if it gives us answers to all these questions. Some of the concerns about Mexican trucks are easy to dismiss. Others are serious, and cannot be ignored.

The above editorial appeared in The Fresno Bee on Sept. 8.