Mexico has no mandatory truck safety standards of its own, and critics say the federal government doesn't have the resources to make sure all the Mexican trucks that will be traveling on American roads are safe.
The Transportation Department says about 63,000 Mexican trucks crossed the border in 1999, the latest year for which data is available.
In February, when an international trade board ordered the United States to allow the Mexican trucks on all roadways — and President Bush agreed to do so — the number was thought to be as high as 4.5 million. That figure was cited by the media and groups opposed to a policy change, and the Transportation Department never sought to correct it.
Transportation officials say the confusion stemmed from trucks versus truck crossings.
Mexican trucks now are limited to a 20-mile zone north of the border, where they transfer their loads to American trucks. Many Mexican trucks — and some U.S. trucks — make several border crossings a day, so the number of trips is estimated at 4.5 million, while the actual number of Mexican trucks is only about 63,000, according to the federal government.
The private group Public Citizen published a report highly critical of Mexican trucks based on the higher number. The group now wants to know how the Transportation Department came up with the numbers.
‘‘I think the Department of Transportation has an obligation to explain exactly what this estimate is because policy decisions have to be made and have to rely on accurate data,'' said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen.
Dave Longo, spokesman for the department's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said the truck numbers come from a study the agency commissioned to determine how to allocate safety-inspection and enforcement resources on the border.
‘‘I think the information has always been there, but has been overlooked. It's come out as we've taken a closer look at the traffic,'' Longo said.
The North American Free Trade Agreement called for Mexican trucks to have unrestricted access to highways in border states — Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona — by 1995 and full access to all U.S. highways by January 2000.
The Clinton administration, citing safety concerns with Mexican trucks but also under pressure from unions representing U.S. truckers, refused to implement the provisions. About 36 percent of the Mexican trucks inspected last year were taken out of service, compared to about 25 percent of U.S. trucks.
A NAFTA arbitration panel ruled Feb. 6 that the policy violated the treaty, but said the United States can enforce safety standards different from those required for U.S. and Canadian trucks. The Bush administration must come up with a policy acceptable to Mexico or face sanctions, if Mexico chooses to impose them.
Safety advocates say that regardless of the number of trucks, safety needs to be paramount as U.S. officials craft the policy.
‘‘If you have an unsafe truck on the road, making 4 million crossings, you still have unsafe equipment on the road,'' said Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Texas, who serves on the House Transportation Committee. ‘‘It doesn't make a difference. An unsafe truck is an unsafe truck.''
On the Net:
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration: http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/
Teamsters Union: http://www.teamster.org
Public Citizen: http://www.citizen.org/pctrade/nafta/reports/truckstudy.htm