oversight

Commercial Passenger Vehicles: Safety Inspection of Commercial Buses and Vans Entering the United States From Mexico

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-08-08.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                  United States General Accounting Office

GAO               Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee
                  on Surface Transportation, Committee
                  on Transportation and Infrastructure,
                  House of Representatives

August 1997
                  COMMERCIAL
                  PASSENGER VEHICLES
                  Safety Inspection of
                  Commercial Buses and
                  Vans Entering the United
                  States From Mexico




GAO/RCED-97-194
                   United States
GAO                General Accounting Office
                   Washington, D.C. 20548

                   Resources, Community, and
                   Economic Development Division

                   B-275794

                   August 8, 1997

                   The Honorable Thomas Petri
                   Chairman, Subcommittee on Surface Transportation
                   Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
                   House of Representatives

                   Dear Mr. Chairman:

                   The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), among other things,
                   provided for the U.S.-Mexican border to be opened on January 1, 1997, to
                   nationwide, scheduled commercial passenger bus and van service from
                   Mexico. Prior to that date, only Mexican commercial passenger carriers
                   engaged in tour and charter service were allowed to travel beyond U.S.
                   commercial zones (designated areas extending several miles from the
                   northern limits of U.S. border towns). However, increased access for
                   commercial passenger vehicles providing scheduled service from Mexico
                   has not yet occurred because of continuing negotiations over commercial
                   motor vehicle safety measures to be implemented by Mexico.

                   In response to your concerns about whether commercial passenger
                   vehicles entering the United States from Mexico are meeting U.S. safety
                   standards, this report describes (1) the number and types of commercial
                   passenger vehicles entering U.S. border states from Mexico and (2) actions
                   taken by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway
                   Administration (FHWA) and U.S. border states to provide safety inspections
                   for commercial passenger vehicles arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.


                   According to the U.S. Customs Service, there were about 218,000
Results in Brief   commercial passenger vehicle crossings from Mexico to the United States
                   (a daily average of 598 crossings) from June 1996 though May 1997 (the
                   latest data available). About 85 percent of these crossings occurred at four
                   crossing points: two in California and two in Texas.1 While Customs
                   records the number of vehicle crossings from Mexico into the United
                   States, many of these vehicles may cross the border several times a day
                   (e.g., airport shuttles) and each crossing is included in Customs’ vehicle
                   crossing count. Furthermore, Customs does not record the identity of
                   individual vehicles, the type of vehicle (e.g., motor coaches or vans), or
                   whether the vehicle is owned by either a U.S. or Mexican carrier. As a


                   1
                    Because Arizona and New Mexico receive less than 2 percent of the northbound commercial
                   passenger vehicle traffic, information on these states is not included in this report.



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             result, no reliable information exists either on the actual number of
             Mexican-owned commercial passenger vehicles that enter the United
             States or on how many of each type of vehicle enters the
             country—information needed to assess the extent to which these vehicles
             are safe and are operated safely.

             FHWA2  and state inspectors have carried out few safety inspections of
             commercial passenger vehicles entering the United States from Mexico
             primarily because their emphasis has been on inspecting commercial
             trucks. FHWA inspectors in Texas and state inspectors in California
             conducted border safety inspections of 528 commercial passenger vehicles
             from January through May 1997 out of an estimated 90,000 crossings.
             About 22 percent of these commercial passenger vehicles were placed out
             of service for serious safety violations, such as steering or brake problems.
             FHWA inspectors in California and state inspectors in Texas had not
             conducted any inspections as of May 1997. The dearth of safety
             inspections, coupled with insufficient information on the number and
             kinds of Mexican-owned commercial passenger vehicles entering the
             United States, precludes any assessment of whether these commercial
             passenger vehicles are safe and are being operated safely.


             NAFTA, which was agreed to by Canada, Mexico, and the United States in
Background   1992 and implemented in the United States through legislation in 1993,
             contained a timetable for the phased removal of trade barriers for goods
             and services among the three countries. Beginning on January 1, 1997,
             Mexican passenger carriers that own and operate commercial buses and
             vans were to have been permitted to apply for the authority to provide
             scheduled service between Mexico and the United States. However, this
             increased access has not occurred because U.S.-Mexico negotiations
             concerning commercial motor vehicle safety measures to be implemented
             by Mexico have not been completed. In contrast, the U.S.-Canada border
             has been open to commercial passenger vehicles for many years.

             Until expanded access is granted, only commercial passenger vehicles
             from Mexico that are engaged in tour and charter service may travel
             beyond the U.S. commercial zones along the border (generally areas
             between 3 and 20 miles from the U.S. border towns’ northern limits,
             depending on each town’s population). As of May 1997, only seven
             Mexican companies had received FHWA operating authority to provide tour

             2
              FHWA does not routinely conduct roadside inspections at fixed locations but has approved 2-year
             positions for several temporary safety inspectors who will inspect commercial trucks and, to a limited
             extent, commercial passenger vehicles entering the United States from Mexico.



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                                        and charter services beyond the commercial zones. However, these and
                                        other Mexican commercial passenger vehicles may operate to any
                                        destination within the commercial zones. Commercial passenger vehicles
                                        entering the United States from Mexico include motor coaches, minibuses,
                                        school-bus-type vehicles, and vans (see fig. 1).


Figure 1: Types of Commercial Passenger Vehicles Providing Cross-Border Service From Mexico




                                        Although there are 29 locations where commercial passenger vehicles
                                        from Mexico may enter the United States, about 85 percent of the




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                                     commercial passenger vehicles enter at 4 major crossings: 2 in California
                                     (San Diego3 and Otay Mesa) and 2 in Texas (Hidalgo and Laredo).
                                     (See fig. 2.)


Figure 2: Locations and Numbers of
Commercial Passenger Vehicle
Crossing Points

                                                            California (5)

                                                                   Arizona (6)
                                                                                   New Mexico (2)

                                         San Diego
                                                                                                        Texas (16)

                                         Otay Mesa

                                                                                                   Laredo

                                                                                                            Hidalgo




                                                      Major border crossing




                                     Source: Based on information from the U.S. Customs Service.




                                     Commercial passenger vehicles enter the United States through the U.S.
                                     Customs Service’s passenger vehicle ports of entry, which are physically
                                     separate from the crossings that commercial trucks use to enter the
                                     United States. Customs usually has one lane of passenger vehicle traffic
                                     dedicated to commercial passenger vehicles, which facilitates the
                                     processing of passengers through both the Customs and Immigration and
                                     Naturalization Service inspection points.

                                     3
                                      The San Diego crossing is also known as San Ysidro.



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To encourage safer commercial motor vehicle operation in the United
States and to help achieve uniformity in commercial motor vehicle
standards throughout the nation, FHWA has issued regulations on vehicle
safety standards (e.g., tires, lights, brakes) and financial and operating
standards (e.g., registration, insurance, commercial driver’s license, and
hours of service requirements). FHWA’s safety regulations on commercial
motor vehicles apply to, among other things, all vehicles designed to
transport more than 15 passengers, including the driver, that operate
within the United States.4 For the most part, the states have adopted the
federal standards. FHWA maintains a presence in all states to promote
commercial vehicle safety and ensures that state laws and regulations are
compatible with federal commercial vehicle safety regulations. FHWA also
provides policy direction and supports state-developed enforcement
strategies through a motor carrier safety grant program.

Although each commercial vehicle involved in interstate commerce on
U.S. roads must meet all federal vehicle, operator, and financial standards,
Canada, Mexico, and the United States have adopted roadside inspection
procedures that focus on the most critical safety items. These inspection
procedures, developed by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA),5
focus on those standards that, if not met, would lead to a commercial
vehicle being placed out of service for serious safety violations.6 FHWA and
state safety inspectors use these procedures when inspecting commercial
passenger vehicles entering the United States from Mexico. Commercial
passenger vehicles that are placed out of service are halted until needed
repairs are made. Safety inspectors who are qualified to conduct
inspections of commercial trucks are also qualified to inspect commercial
passenger vehicles.

There are two CVSA procedures that have been used to inspect commercial
passenger vehicles entering the United States from Mexico: level-1 and
level-2 inspections. The level-1 inspection is the most rigorous—a full
inspection of both the driver and the vehicle. The driver inspection
includes ensuring that the driver has a valid commercial driver’s license, is
medically qualified, and has an updated log showing the driver’s hours of

4
 Commercial passenger vehicles designed to transport 15 or fewer passengers are not subject to FHWA
vehicle safety standards; however, they generally still must meet FHWA financial and operating
standards.
5
 CVSA is a not-for-profit association of state, provincial, and federal officials formed to improve
commercial vehicle safety. CVSA pursues this goal, in part, through working with state, federal, and
provincial governments to achieve uniformity, compatibility, and reciprocity among regulatory and
enforcement agencies.
6
 Financial and other penalties may be imposed for other violations of federal requirements.



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                                     service. The vehicle inspection includes a visual inspection and an
                                     extensive undercarriage inspection that covers the brakes, frame, and
                                     suspension. The level-2 inspection is similar to the level-1 inspection,
                                     except that it does not include an extensive undercarriage inspection.


                                     Customs data show that, from June 1996 through May 1997 (the latest data
Limited Information                  available), there were an average of about 598 northbound commercial
Exists on Commercial                 passenger vehicle crossings each day along the U.S.-Mexico border (see
Passenger Vehicles                   table 1). However, counting practices vary somewhat among the ports of
                                     entry and, as a result, the traffic levels reported by Customs are
Entering the United                  understated by an unknown amount. At the San Diego and Otay Mesa,
States From Mexico                   California, crossings, all commercial passenger vehicles, regardless of the
                                     vehicle capacity, are funneled through a single lane for commercial
                                     passenger vehicles. However, in Texas, Customs agents require
                                     commercial vans to use the lanes provided for private passenger vehicles.
                                     They told us that they do not always attempt to determine whether the
                                     vans are commercial or private passenger vans, which results in some
                                     commercial vans being counted as private passenger vehicles.

Table 1: Northbound Commercial
Passenger Vehicle Crossings at the                                          Number of         Percentage of
Four Busiest Border Crossing         Border location                        crossings        total crossings         Daily average
Locations, From June 1996 Through    San Diego, Calif.                          99,782                     46                   273
May 1997
                                     Otay Mesa, Calif.                          19,646                      9                       54
                                     Hidalgo, Tex.                              40,338                     18                   111
                                     Laredo, Tex.                               24,782                     11                       68
                                     Subtotal                                  184,548                     85                   506
                                     All others                                 33,845                     15                       93
                                     Total                                     218,393                    100                   598
                                     Note: As described in the text, the number of crossings may be understated somewhat. Columns
                                     may not add to totals because of rounding.



                                     Source: Based on U.S. Customs Service data.


                                     Customs officials in Texas told us that the traffic counts are used primarily
                                     to determine the level of staffing that is needed at each crossing point.
                                     They also told us that they permit commercial passenger vans to enter the
                                     United States through private passenger lanes because, given their smaller
                                     size, the vans do not require as much inspection as motor coaches do.
                                     Also, according to a Customs official, it is difficult for Customs agents to



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identify whether some vans are carrying paying passengers or private
passengers.

While Customs records the number of crossings, it does not keep records
on the number or type of individual commercial passenger vehicles that
cross the border.7 Customs, FHWA, and state officials told us that they
believe that most of the northbound cross-border commercial passenger
traffic is of a repeat nature, such as airport and shopping center shuttle
services. Thus, while Customs’ records show an average of 598 crossings
daily, the number of individual commercial vehicles is smaller, but, again,
to an unknown degree.

In California, federal and state officials told us that most traffic at the San
Diego crossing consists of motor coaches and school-bus-type vehicles
providing shuttle service to destinations such as bus terminals, grocery
stores, and parking lots just inside the U.S. border. Federal officials stated
that few commercial vans enter the country at the San Diego crossing.
Rather, most vans, such as those providing shuttle service to the San Diego
airport, enter at the Otay Mesa crossing. Officials told us that some
commercial passenger vehicles at both crossings may enter the United
States up to 10 times a day.

In Texas, federal officials told us that most of the Laredo cross-border
traffic consists of U.S.-based carriers providing scheduled service to Dallas
and Houston. A Customs official in Laredo estimated that while only 4 or 5
commercial passenger vans cross the border on weekdays, approximately
50 or 60 vans cross the border during the weekend. According to one
Customs official, most commercial passenger vehicles at the Hidalgo,
Texas, crossing are motor coaches; an estimated 90 percent of these
vehicles travel to destinations within the commercial zone to the nearby
border city of McAllen.




7
 According to U.S. Customs officials, the U.S. Customs Service is not required by statute or regulation
to count vehicles that enter the United States from Mexico.



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                        Relatively few safety inspections of commercial passenger vehicles have
FHWA and States         taken place in the past year.8 FHWA inspectors in Texas and state
Have Conducted Few      inspectors in California conducted border safety inspections of 528
Safety Inspections,     commercial passenger vehicles from January through May 1997 out of an
                        estimated 90,000 border crossings during that period. (Because many
Citing Higher           commercial passenger vehicles may enter the United States several times a
Priorities              day, inspectors would not typically inspect the same vehicle each time it
                        crossed the border.) About 22 percent of the vehicles inspected were
                        placed out of service. Some of these were vehicles owned and operated by
                        U.S. carriers. In comparison, the out-of-service rate for the 10,000 U.S.
                        commercial passenger vehicles inspected on the nation’s roads from
                        October 1996 through June 1997 was about 10 percent. FHWA inspectors in
                        California and state inspectors in Texas had not conducted any
                        inspections as of May 1997. The dearth of safety inspections, coupled with
                        insufficient information on the number and kinds of Mexican commercial
                        passenger vehicles entering the United States, precludes any assessment
                        of whether these commercial passenger vehicles are safe and are being
                        operated safely.9

                        FHWA and state officials told us that because many more commercial
                        trucks enter the United States from Mexico than do commercial passenger
                        vehicles, they spend most of their time inspecting commercial trucks.
                        About 12,000 commercial truck crossings occur along the border each day
                        compared with about 598 commercial passenger vehicle crossings (a
                        20-to-1 ratio). Moreover, about 45 percent of the 25,000 trucks inspected
                        upon entering the United States from Mexico were placed out of service
                        for serious safety violations in calendar year 1996.10


Safety Inspections in   FHWA is not conducting safety inspections of commercial passenger
California              vehicles entering California from Mexico. According to an FHWA official in
                        California, the two federal inspectors assigned to the California border are
                        focusing all of their inspection efforts on the commercial trucks entering

                        8
                         These inspections cover the most critical safety standards; they do not include manufacturing vehicle
                        safety standards and other safety standards, such as those governing seat flammability, that are under
                        the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
                        9
                         In May 1997, FHWA completed a study of the Mexican safety and regulatory processes that govern the
                        Mexican scheduled service bus industry entitled Mexican Regular Route Bus Industry Study. Among
                        other things, the study provides a broad description of the industry, safety and regulatory requirements
                        and processes, and Mexican government oversight of the industry. It does not provide information on
                        the safety fitness of buses operated in Mexico or address the extent to which Mexican safety
                        regulations are enforced.
                        10
                          Commercial Trucking: Safety Concerns About Mexican Trucks Remain Even as Inspection Activity
                        Increases (GAO/RCED-97-68, Apr. 9, 1997).



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the United States from Mexico because (1) these trucks continue to
display serious violations of insurance and operating authority
requirements and (2) congestion at the border crossings does not allow
adequate space for vehicle inspections to be conducted.11

California state safety inspections of commercial passenger vehicles
entering the United States from Mexico have been limited to two 1-day
strike force efforts (see fig. 3). In total, the California Highway Patrol
conducted level-1 inspections of 144 vehicles and placed 37 (26 percent)
vehicles out of service for serious safety violations, such as steering or
brake problems.




11
 Inspection of commercial passenger vehicles requires adequate space and distance from traffic to
provide for the inspectors’ and passengers’ safety. In addition, sufficient space is needed to park
out-of-service vehicles until they can be repaired or towed. Finally, passengers must be provided
access to shelter, water, and relief stations.



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Figure 3: Commercial Passenger Vehicle Inspection Activities in California




                                           During the first strike force effort on April 20, 1997, safety inspectors
                                           inspected vehicles near the passenger vehicle border crossings at San
                                           Diego and Otay Mesa. At the San Diego crossing, state officials directed
                                           commercial passenger vehicles to stop at a curbside about 1 mile from the
                                           border crossing for inspection because space was insufficient to conduct
                                           vehicle inspections at the Customs border crossing (see fig. 3). For
                                           vehicles crossing at Otay Mesa, state officials diverted commercial
                                           passenger vehicle traffic from the passenger crossing to the state truck




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                              inspection facility about 1 mile away. The second strike force took place at
                              two federal Immigration and Naturalization Service border patrol posts
                              just north of San Diego on April 26, 1997. A California Highway Patrol
                              official stated that future border inspections of commercial passenger
                              vehicles will depend on funding increases because current staffing levels
                              are not sufficient for increased inspection activity.


Safety Inspections in Texas   FHWA inspectors primarily conducted level-2 safety inspections of
                              commercial passenger vehicles in Texas from January through May 1997
                              (see fig. 4). They also have conducted several strike forces. In total, FHWA
                              inspectors inspected 384 commercial passenger vehicles and placed 80 (21
                              percent) of them out-of-service for serious safety violations. The eight
                              FHWA safety inspectors assigned to the Texas border are responsible for
                              inspecting both commercial trucks and commercial passenger vehicles
                              that enter the United States from Mexico. They have devoted about
                              one-eighth of their time to commercial passenger vehicle inspections.12




                              12
                               In fiscal year 1996, there were about 2 million commercial truck crossings into Texas. During this
                              same period, there were about 92,000 commercial passenger vehicle crossings, according to Customs.



                              Page 11                        GAO/RCED-97-194 Safety Inspection of Mexican Buses and Vans
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Figure 4: Commercial Passenger Vehicle Inspection Activities in Texas




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                           Over a 2-week period in February 1997 at the Hidalgo and Pharr crossings,
                           the first FHWA strike force conducted level-2 safety inspections of 132
                           vehicles arriving from Mexico. Twenty-eight (21 percent) of these vehicles
                           were placed out of service for serious safety violations, such as
                           inoperative brakes or air suspension problems. Of these 28 vehicles, 24
                           were owned and operated by U.S. carriers, 17 of them by a single U.S.
                           company.

                           FHWA conducted two other strike forces in Laredo, one to identify
                           commercial passenger van traffic patterns and another to address U.S.
                           carrier complaints about alleged illegal van operators. The strike forces
                           conducted document checks (e.g., proof of vehicle registration, operator’s
                           license, and insurance) of vans entering the United States. A 3-day effort
                           beginning on Good Friday and ending Easter Sunday, a holiday weekend
                           that FHWA officials believed would see an increase in cross-border van
                           activity, proved uneventful. Traffic was extremely light, and FHWA
                           inspectors found only two violations. During a 3-week strike force in April
                           and May 1997, FHWA inspectors cited 11 van operators with 22 violations
                           for lack of proof of insurance or registration. All of the vans cited were
                           owned and operated by U.S. carriers. FHWA investigators discovered that
                           these vehicles were operating without proper insurance coverage or
                           Department of Transportation operating authority. FHWA assessed these
                           van operators a total of $32,000 in penalties for these violations. As a result
                           of these findings, FHWA has directed its inspectors at the border crossings
                           to increase their focus on both domestic and Mexican vans, as opposed to
                           larger commercial passenger vehicles, when conducting their commercial
                           passenger vehicle inspections.

                           Texas safety inspectors are not inspecting commercial passenger vehicles
                           arriving from Mexico because (1) their priority is to inspect commercial
                           trucks entering the United States from Mexico, (2) FHWA is currently
                           inspecting commercial passenger vehicles at the border, and (3) they need
                           a budget for these activities from the state legislature and inspection
                           locations that provide for passenger safety while inspections are taking
                           place.


FHWA’s Investigation and   FHWA also investigates foreign and domestic commercial passenger
Education Activities       carriers for violations of federal regulations, such as operating authority
                           requirements, in response to complaints filed by U.S. carriers. In Texas,
                           FHWA officials are addressing five commercial passenger carriers alleged to
                           be Mexican carriers operating beyond U.S. commercial zones without



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                     federal operating authority. According to the FHWA official responsible for
                     following up on these allegations, FHWA has determined that all of these
                     companies are U.S. companies. An FHWA official in California told us that
                     no complaints about alleged illegal Mexican carriers have been filed with
                     the agency in that state.

                     FHWA  has provided Mexican officials with guidance on operating and safety
                     requirements for commercial passenger vehicles. For example, an FHWA
                     official in Arizona told us that on several occasions he spoke to the
                     Mexican Consulate in Nogales in response to requests for information on
                     the requirements and regulations applicable to a tour and charter operator
                     that wanted to transport a group to Disneyland. The FHWA official told us
                     he sent the Consulate a package of information on obtaining proper
                     operating authority, applicable safety regulations, and other requirements.
                     In Texas, an FHWA official prepared a bilingual packet of information
                     containing operating and safety requirements for Mexican commercial
                     vehicles and presented it to Mexican officials from the state of
                     Tamaulipas.


                     We provided the Department of Transportation with a draft of this report
Agency Comments      for review and comment. We met with officials including the national
and Our Evaluation   motor coach program coordinator in FHWA’s Office of Motor Carriers, the
                     special assistant to the associate administrator in the Office of Motor
                     Carriers, and a senior analyst in the Office of the Secretary. DOT generally
                     agreed with the contents of the draft report. DOT also offered several
                     technical and clarifying comments, which we incorporated where
                     appropriate.


                     To achieve our first objective, we obtained the U.S. Customs Service’s
Scope and            commercial passenger vehicle traffic data for the period from June 1996
Methodology          through May 1997. We also visited seven border crossings, where almost
                     90 percent of the commercial passenger vehicles from Mexico enter the
                     United States. We discussed the nature of cross-border commercial
                     passenger vehicle traffic with Customs, Immigration and Naturalization
                     Service, Department of Transportation, and state commercial vehicle
                     enforcement officials in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. We
                     also discussed cross-border traffic with university researchers.

                     To achieve our second objective, we discussed inspection practices with
                     Department of Transportation officials and state enforcement officials in



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           Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. We observed federal
           commercial passenger vehicle inspection activity in Texas and state
           commercial passenger vehicle inspection activity in California. We
           obtained commercial passenger vehicle inspection reports from
           Department of Transportation and California Highway Patrol officials. We
           also met with the Texas Bus Association, the American Bus Association,
           and several U.S. bus company officials to discuss cross-border safety
           issues involving commercial passenger vehicles.

           With the exception of not verifying Customs’ cross-border crossing data
           and inspection results reported by FHWA and California, we performed this
           work in accordance with generally accepted government auditing
           standards. We performed our work from January 1997 through July 1997.


           We are sending copies of this report to congressional committees with
           responsibilities for transportation issues; the Secretaries of Transportation
           and the Treasury; the Administrator, FHWA; the Director, Office of
           Management and Budget; and the Commissioner, U.S. Customs Service.
           We will also make copies available to others.

           If you or your staff have any questions about this report, please contact me
           at (202) 512-3650. Major contributors to this report were Marion Chastain,
           Paul Lacey, James Ratzenberger, Deena Richart, and Angel Sharma.

           Sincerely yours,




           Phyllis F. Scheinberg
           Associate Director, Transportation Issues




(342931)   Page 15                GAO/RCED-97-194 Safety Inspection of Mexican Buses and Vans
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