It was the 19th-century equivalent of sitting on an airport runway for six hours.

Such wasteful delays wouldn’t be acceptable today. Yet we permit something very much like it when it comes to North American trucking.

That’s why a new pilot program, administered by the Department of Transportation, makes so much sense: It will remove protectionist barriers that currently forbid well-qualified Mexican long-haul drivers from operating on American highways.

This is an innovation that should have happened years ago. Under NAFTA, the United States was supposed to lift restrictions on Mexican trucks in 2000. Yet the prohibitions never went away, in large part because opponents of free trade raised concerns about the safety of Mexican trucks.

If Mexican trucks aren’t safe, they obviously shouldn’t gain access to American roads. Frankly, the fact that they’re from Mexico shouldn’t have anything to do with it. Unsafe trucks, no matter what their origin–California, Michigan, or Texas–shouldn’t be on the road.

The good news is that we already have regulations in place to make sure U.S. truck fleets are safe. Under the new pilot program, these existing regulations also will apply to a limited number of participating truckers from Mexico.

Teams from the Department of Transportation will go south of the Rio Grande to certify trucks and their drivers in Mexico. Vehicles bound for the El Norte will receive a “hood to tail-lamps” inspection. Drivers will furnish commercial licenses, medical certificates, insurance records, and driving histories. They’ll undergo drug tests and comply with hours-of-service rules. They won’t be allowed to carry hazardous materials. As a truck owner who hauls my own grain, I know they’re going to be undergoing the same rigorous licensing and inspection that I have to. That’s an important component of the pilot program.

It’s a smart and fair approach. The goal is to make American roads as safe as possible–and to modernize our trucking system. Right now, cargo that travels from Mexico to the United States must offload within 25 miles of the border and then reload onto American trucks.

This creates an unnecessary bottleneck in the flow of goods. Consumers may not realize it, but they pay a price for this inefficiency.

The pilot program is scheduled to last a year. At the end of 12 months, we can assess the results and consider our options–everything from canceling the program to making it permanent, or, most likely, doing some fine tuning.

There is every reason for optimism. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, Mexican and U.S. trucks pass safety inspections at similar rates. Moreover, Mexican drivers are actually less likely than American ones to be in violation of the law: 1.2 percent versus 7 percent, respectively, in 2006.

The primary opponent of Mexican trucking is Big Labor, which, as usual, is putting its own narrow interests ahead of the common good. When union leaders prattle on about the poor safety records of Mexican trucks, they’re attempting to direct our attention away from the real issue. They’d prefer to wage an emotional debate based on self-interest rather than take a clear-eyed look at the economic implications of protectionism.

What’s more, Mexican truckers won’t “steal” jobs from Americans: The American trucking industry already suffers from an acute labor shortage. Anybody who has driven on interstate highways in recent years probably has seen recruitment posters slapped on the backs of 18-wheelers. Those signs don’t exist because there are too many drivers and not enough jobs.

Finally, if we don’t try to settle this issue, then another of our unresolved trade disputes with Mexico will continue to drag on.

It’s time to take another step toward full NAFTA implementation and welcome a trucking system that makes North America economically stronger and more efficient.

Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans in partnership with his brother on their NE Iowa family farm. Tim is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology