SAN DIEGO — You have to look hard to find flaws in the fancy red big rig that has rumbled north across the international border loaded with concrete blocks.
Inspector Paul Ingram is looking very hard. He thumps the tires, aims his flashlight at the brakes, jiggles hoses and rods, scoots beneath to scan the suspension and frame, and checks the paperwork on the truck and its Tijuana driver.
Ingram, who works for the California Highway Patrol, finds a section of the steering column that is a tad wobbly, but not dangerously so. But he refuses to let the truck continue north until its owner, Luciano Padilla, fixes a severe crimp in the hose supplying air for the trailer's brakes.
Nearby at this 5-year-old CHP border station, two trucks from Tijuana are undergoing similar reviews. The 1,900 trucks entering daily at the Otay Mesa port of entry, most of them based in Mexico, must pass through this state-of-the-art station before they can go on to unload their cargo. There is a second station at the state's other major border entry for trucks, 95 miles east in Calexico. About 800 trucks a day enter there.
Far from Washington, D.C., where a debate rages over whether to impose strict federal safety standards before granting Mexican truckers full access to U.S. highways, the CHP inspections make California an exception among the border states. Some see the widely praised program as a model for a broader federal inspection regimen.
"California stepped up much earlier and put inspectors at these border crossings," said Barbara Cobble, a program director in the U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general's office.
Despite wide concern that Mexican trucks are hazardous, those operating in California's border zone here are only slightly more likely to fail inspection than are U.S. trucks.
The inspector general reports that the failure rate for Mexican trucks in California was 27% last year, compared with 24% for U.S. trucks nationwide. At Otay Mesa, the margin was thinner: 23% for Mexican-based trucks and 22% for California carriers, according to CHP figures.
Mexican trucks in California were in far better shape than at other spots along the 2,000-mile border, where the overall failure rate for Mexican trucks was 37%, said Kenneth M. Mead, the transportation department's inspector general, during congressional testimony last month. At one Texas crossing, half of inspected trucks were sidelined as unsafe.
"The condition of the Mexican commercial trucks entering at the Mexico-California border is much better than those entering through all other border states," said an inspector general's report issued in May. Auditors and border inspectors said that is because Mexican truckers know their vehicles must be in shape to operate in California.
Though the 8-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement should have allowed Mexican trucks to travel U.S. highways freely by now, the Clinton administration kept them restricted to commercial zones of varying sizes around each port of entry--a prohibition the Bush administration wants to remove as unfair to Mexico. The U.S. Senate on Wednesday voted to impose strict federal safety restrictions on Mexican trucks before the limits are lifted.
In California, those trucks must bear a color-coded approval sticker, renewed every three months, although restricted to the border zone, which extends to 20 miles north of the San Diego city limits.
The Otay Mesa and Calexico crossings are the only ones among 27 truck entries on the U.S.-Mexico border where truck inspectors are present during all operating hours. The two crossings handle nearly all of the 1 million trucks entering California from Mexico yearly.
The three other states that border Mexico--Texas, Arizona and New Mexico--have limited personnel and facilities dedicated to such inspections, so trucks are less likely to be reviewed. Texas, which gets 69% of those crossing the Southwest border from Mexico, relies on random checks by 42 inspectors to handle an average 8,600 trucks a day. Officials concede they examine only a tiny share.
"We don't have the resources or the facilities to inspect every Mexican truck," said Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety. "We are dealing with a tremendous amount of volume. We're . . . doing the best we can with the resources we have."
Texas officials said they hope for funding to build eight inspection sites similar to those in California. In New Mexico, work is underway on an inspection station at Santa Teresa, and Arizona officials plan a new inspection site at Nogales.
Federal audits have recommended bolstering state efforts by adding 126 federal safety inspectors at the border. So far, 47 new inspectors have been authorized and an additional 80 positions are sought.