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Northwest highways await Mexican trucks

While Northwest farmers will benefit from the lifting of a tariff, the agreement between the United States and Mexico allowing Mexican trucks on U.S. roads has some worried.
While Northwest farmers will benefit from the lifting of a tariff, the agreement between the United States and Mexico allowing Mexican trucks on U.S. roads has some worried.

The next time you head down the interstate, that truck in the lane next to you could be from Mexico. That's because of a recent cross-border trucking accord between the United States and Mexico.

Opponents say putting Mexican trucks on U.S. roads is risky. But there's little evidence to show that Mexican trucks are actually a hazard on the highway.

Drivers from May Trucking, Oregon's largest long-haul trucking company, are more likely to be sharing the road with 18-wheelers from Mexico.

"It's a commonly held belief that these trucks are not going to be as safe," says Scott Smith, May Trucking's vice president. "We spend a lot of time and money becoming a safe company, creating a safe environment. And if we're competing with, potentially, companies that aren't doing that, that's a disadvantage."

Good for farmers, but ...

The agreement between the U.S. and Mexico is good for Northwest farmers because it phases out a tariff on American exports to Mexico. But Smith's concerns about Mexican 18-wheelers in the U.S. are shared by many in the trucking industry.

A group that represents independent truckers has been especially outspoken.

"They're going to pay these guys as little as they possibly can and run them as hard as they can," says owner-operator Lee Klass of Portland.

Here's the problem. There's not much data to say one way or another whether Mexican trucks are actually any more dangerous than American trucks.

Test run was inconclusive

A short-lived pilot program about three years ago did allow some Mexican truckers to drive long-haul routes into the U.S. Nationally, inspections during that program resulted in roughly the same rate of safety infractions as for American trucks.

But a follow-up report from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Inspector General warned that not enough Mexican trucks were inspected to draw any firm conclusions.

Meanwhile, Mexican officials defend their country's standards for truck drivers.

"Things happen regardless of the nationality of the driver or the company," says Ricardo Alday, a spokesman for the Mexican embassy in Washington DC.

Under the cross-border agreement, Mexican truckers will have to submit to background checks and comply with U.S. rules about the number of hours they can drive without a break.

Will they hit the NW?

Trucking industry insiders say hardly any Mexican trucks will actually make their way to the Northwest, at least at first. And if they do show up, inspectors and others in the industry say drivers probably won't notice them.

To most Northwest drivers, Mexican long-haul trucks will look pretty much like American trucks, said David McKane of the Oregon Department of Transportation.

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Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.