It was 5:30 am on Tuesday, May 7, when a “full trailer” truck (which can carry loads up to 75.5 tons) transporting LP gas skidded off the Mexico City-Pachuca highway, exploded and caused a horrific tragedy, resulting in over 20 deaths and structural damage in the settlement of San Pedro Xalostoc, Ecatepec.
Initial investigations from authorities have determined that the cause of the accident was human error on the driver’s part. They’ve also stated that both the company and the transport unit involved were registered and verified and met maintenance and security standards. The gas company involved has already declared it will fully cooperate with the government’s investigation and, if deemed responsible for the tragedy, will pay damages.
Unfortunately, for a federal government concerned more with appearances than substance, this is not enough. Vast coverage on national media has urged President Enrique Peña Nieto’s team—through the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Transportes (Ministry of Communications and Transport—SCT)—to seem like it is on top of things by pledging to prioritize reforms that will prevent accidents like this one in the future, no matter the collateral damage of those reforms.
Anyone who has driven down U.S. and Mexican highways can attest that Mexican highways are inferior and more dangerous. The materials used in Mexico are substandard and make roads slippery. Road development and maintenance are also terrible: highways have too few guardrails, too many potholes, poorly planned intersections, terrible signaling, and sharp inclines on dangerous curves. Many of our highways have tolls, but you wouldn’t know it from their disrepair. Moreover, there is no effective urban planning. In many cases, highway speed limits are set without consideration for residential areas near the road. Houses built within 165 feet (50 meters) of a non-protected high speed highway are normal in Mexico.
But none of these shortcomings, which cause close to 30,000 accidents a year on Mexico’s highways, have influenced the SCT’s populist response to the tragedy. Here’s why: first, mentioning them could be interpreted as an acceptance of co-responsibility in the San Pedro Xalostoc tragedy. Second, addressing these situations is hard work and would demand additional government spending. Instead, the SCT has resolved to revise NOM-12-SCT-2-2008—the norm that allows 75.5 ton trucks to transport goods throughout the country. Revisions to the regulation are expected to be in place by May 31 and will likely prohibit what are commonly referred to as “full trailers” on Mexico’s highways.
If this does happen, the federal government will have made yet another populist decision; common folk hate full trailers. They are a nuisance to drivers and are slow and hard to pass. They are also harder to control and to drive than a normal sedan. Yet, prohibiting the 75.5-ton truck will cause more damage rather than actually solving the problem.
According to SCT, full trailer trucks are involved in 3 percent of registered accidents and 2.2 percent of fatalities on highways. This is partly because drivers of any 75.5-ton vehicle need special training and certifications; on the contrary, the process to get a normal driver’s license in Mexico sometimes doesn’t even require a road test and renewals are done through simple paperwork. Experts drive trailer trucks, amateurs drive everything else.
As the Xalostoc tragedy shows, trailer truck drivers are not immune from having accidents, but the numbers put the frequency of trailer truck accidents in perspective. Outlawing full trailer trucks will not make highways significantly safer.
Moreover, given their cost efficiency, 75.5-ton trailers are used by practically all of Mexico’s large industries to transport raw materials and finished products. Changing NOM-12-SCT-2-2008 could double logistics costs for companies such as Soriana, Bimbo, FEMSA, and others. Companies will only have two options to offset cost increases: raise the prices of consumer-goods and/or cut other fixed costs (financial business jargon for massive layoffs). Neither option is good for Mexicans, but it is unlikely that many will draw the parallel to equate the SCT decision with higher prices and/or layoffs.
The suffering and loss from the Xalostoc tragedy is no small thing. Emotions are high and people want to point fingers. The Mexican people have an impulse to find someone to blame and make them pay; that’s understandable. But to solve the real problems we face, Mexico does not need a government that opts for populist decisions to put out media fires and appease its constituents. It needs a government that creates and implements effective solutions.
At a time when economic slowdown is set to burst Peña Nieto’s miracle bubble, the government should be looking for ways to catalyze industrial growth and performance, not hinder it in exchange for a positive news headline.