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Remarks at the Third NTSB Public Hearing on Truck and Bus Safety: The Highway Transportation Safety Aspects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Los Angeles, CA
Jim Hall
Third NTSB Public Hearing on Truck and Bus Safety: The Highway Transportation Safety Aspects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Los Angeles, CA

Good morning and welcome.

I am Jim Hall, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and Chairman of this public hearing. On the Board of Inquiry with me are: Dr. Vern Ellingstad, director of the Office of Research and Engineering; Mr. Barry Sweedler, director of the Office of Safety Recommendations and Accomplishments; Mr. Joseph Osterman, director of the Office of Highway Safety; and Ms. Jeanmarie Poole, hearing officer, from the Office of Highway Safety.

The Board of Inquiry will be assisted by a Technical Panel from the Safety Board's offices of Highway Safety and Research and Engineering. They are Ms. Michele McMurtry, Ms. Barbara Czech, Dr. Meg Sweeney, Mr. Gary Van Etten, Mr. Dave Rayburn, Mr. Ken Suydam, and Dr. Mitch Garber.

Also here to assist me are my Special Assistant, Ms. Deborah Smith, and from the Office of Public Affairs, Ms. Lauren Peduzzi and Mr. Phil Frame. Ms. Vicky Parezo from the Office of Highway Safety and Ms. Carolyn Dargan from the Managing Director's Office are here to assist with administrative matters.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent government agency charged by Congress to investigate all modes of transportation accidents, to make recommendations to prevent similar accidents from recurring, and to provide independent oversight of the all government and private entities in the transportation field.

Today, we begin a three-day hearing on truck and bus safety issues related to the North American Free Trade Agreement. This hearing is about saving lives. It is about the responsibility we all have to ensure that North America's transportation system is as safe as we can make it. The efforts of the United States, Canada and Mexico in other modes of commercial vehicle safety, especially aviation, demonstrate that when governments put safety first, interdependence and cooperation can be achieved. If we can make our airways safer, there is no reason that the highway systems in our three nations can't be equally safe. All that is necessary is some creative thinking and the national will to achieve it. Our citizens demand no less from us.

In 1995, the U.S. Government postponed opening the border between the United States and Mexico beyond the established commercial zones, because of concerns that the infrastructure was not yet in place to ensure that only safe commercial vehicles would cross those borders. They're now scheduled to open to commercial traffic on January 1, 2000. We would do well to ask ourselves if we are ready. Since 1995, although many issues have been addressed and resolved, others still remain. That is why we are here. It is the responsibility of the Safety Board, in its oversight role, to examine those issues and recommend solutions to them, if necessary.

Let me give you just two examples of why Americans remain justifiably concerned about the safety of our borders and the effect of NAFTA on that safety.

On March 26, 1997, a tractor-trailer, travelling from Mexico, collided with traffic stopped at a highway construction zone - triggering a 10-vehicle chain reaction. The accident truck and two other vehicles caught fire. Four people were killed; five others were injured. The subsequent investigation revealed that:

    · The Mexican carrier was permitted to operate certain trucks outside the commercial zone, but this truck was not one of them.

    · The truck had a California license plate, but that state's Department of Motor Vehicles had no record of the plate number or of the vehicle's identification number.

    · The driver didn't carry a logbook to track hours of service, which is required in the United States for drivers who travel more than 100 miles from their base.

    · The carrier didn't keep copies of logbooks or other relevant driver information.

    · And, one of the truck's brakes was out of adjustment.

On June 8, 1999, during the afternoon rush hour, a tractor-trailer, operated by a Canadian motor carrier, carrying an excavator, hit a pedestrian bridge over the Baltimore Beltway, causing it to collapse. Three passenger vehicles subsequently crashed into the collapsed bridge, resulting in one fatality and five injuries. The Beltway had to be closed for 12 hours to clean up the accident.

This accident is still under investigation, but so far, we know that the truck driver improperly loaded the excavator on the trailer. As a result, the total height of the truck and its cargo was more than a foot higher than the 16-foot bridge. The driver told Board investigators that he had never been trained in how to load the excavators; he had just watched other drivers. In addition, although the carrier periodically operates in the United States, the Office of Motor Carriers and Highway Safety has never performed a compliance review of the company to ensure compliance with safety regulations.

I'm sure that our friends from Canada and Mexico have similar reports about U.S. vehicles causing accidents in their countries and that their citizens share the same concerns. It only takes a few such incidents - reported on our 24-hour, international media outlets - to call the integrity of our safety network into question. We owe it to all of our citizens to assure them that their safety will not be compromised once this phase of NAFTA takes effect. We need to ensure that carrier and driver oversight mechanisms are in place and are effective and that drivers not only know the transport regulations governing each nation, but that those regulations are strictly enforced. To do that, we need to provide for an unfettered information exchange between governments regarding carrier practices, driving records, and accident information. What's needed is a North American motor carrier, driver and accident information system.

As I said earlier, the governments of the United States, Canada, and Mexico have been working hard to craft agreements that address safety issues such as licensing, driver and carrier oversight, and medical fitness for duty. For example, they have agreed to develop a common logbook format for recording driver hours of service; train their inspectors on the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance standards for vehicle inspections; and harmonize their driver medical fitness for duty standards. However, other issues remain unresolved.

Although each country has agreed to share information on drivers and carriers that participate in cross-border commerce, it is not clear how this data will be used and whether it will be compatible with existing data collection tools currently used by each nation's transportation regulators. This is not a new concern for the Board. Just recently, a study on bus crashworthiness revealed that our Department of Transportation has multiple definitions for a bus. And, at our truck and bus hearing in April, DOT officials admitted that they don't know how many motor carriers are operating within the United States. This suggests that sharing information between countries will be even more problematic.

Large discrepancies also still exist regarding acceptable vehicle size and weight standards. U.S. regulations limit trucks to 80,000 pounds. However, the maximum allowable weight in Canada is 96,000 pounds, and Mexico allows trucks that weigh up to 106,000 pounds to travel its highways.

There are also differences between countries regarding hours of service. Currently, Mexico does not regulate maximum hours of service. Rather, Mexico manages its driver hours through labor laws, similar to the United States' Fair Labor Standards Act. Canada allows drivers to drive up to 13 hours per shift - three more hours than are allowed in the United States. Some Canadian provinces allow drivers operating within their provincial borders to log up to 100 hours a week of driving time. The three nations have agreed to abide by the hours of service rules of the host country. However, this agreement could lead to more fatigue-related accidents as drivers alternate between within-border operations and across-border operations.

Finally, we need a sufficient number of vehicle safety inspectors at the borders to identify those trucks that may pose a hazard to the motoring public. In 1998, 3.9 million commercial vehicles entered the United States from Mexico, but only about 24,000 were inspected. About 5.8 million commercial vehicles entered the United States from Canada, but only about 32,000 of those were inspected. This constitutes less than 0.6 percent of the trucks crossing both borders.

The federal and state governments must ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place at all border crossings, and that gaps that would allow unsafe trucks and buses access to our nations' highways are eliminated.

These are some of the issues we will explore over the next three days. The importance of commercial vehicle safety in North America cannot be overstated. It is the backbone of our economies. We must be willing to take a hard look at where we are and to make the hard decisions about what must be done to ensure that our transportation systems are as safe as possible.

I want to thank all of you for attending this important event.

A Safety Board public hearing is a fact-gathering exercise. It is not an adversarial proceeding. We will not debate or analyze the facts and conclusions presented. Rather, we will spend our time examining current safety problems and studying possible solutions. The Safety Board will use information from this public hearing to develop possible recommendations and other material as part of our initiative on truck and bus safety.

The Safety Board has designated as parties to the public hearing those government agencies, companies, associations, and individuals whose special knowledge will help us develop the pertinent facts for this initiative.

I would like to introduce the parties for the record. They are:

Representing Canada:

    · Transport Canada

    · Canadian Bus Association

Representing the United States Government:

    · United States Department of Transportation

Representing the States:

    · Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance

    · National Association of Governors' Highway Safety Representatives

    · American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials

    · International Association of Chiefs of Police

Representing the Trucking Industry:

    · American Trucking Associations

    · National Private Truck Council

    · Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association

    · National Association of Independent Insurers

Representing the Bus Industry:

    · United Motorcoach Association

    · American Bus Association

    · Greyhound Lines Inc.

Representing the Safety Advocacy Groups:

    · Parents Against Tired Truckers

    · Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways

    · Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

Representing the Unions:

    · International Brotherhood of Teamsters

The procedures for the hearing are as follows:

As Chairman of the Board of Inquiry, I will be responsible for the conduct of the public hearing. I will make all rulings on the admissibility of questions, documents, or information as factual evidence, and all such rulings will be final.

Witnesses will serve on panels devoted to specific topic areas. The technical panel will question the witnesses first. I will then call upon each party spokesperson to question the witnesses. We will conclude with questions from each member of the Board of Inquiry.

A transcript of the public hearing and all exhibits entered into the record will become part of the public record in the Safety Board's Washington, D.C., office. In addition, the Safety Board's highway reports are published on our website:

Ms. Poole, please introduce the first panel of witnesses.