(by Justin Berkowitz, Car & Driver) -- About half of the action movies made in the 1980s and 1990s, it seems, end up with a final showdown in a shipyard, hero and villains weaving through crates and pallets and containers. (The other half in abandoned warehouses and steel mills with free-flowing magnesium sparks.) “Diplomatic immunity!” a South African criminal taunts from atop a cargo ship in Lethal Weapon 2, moments before Danny Glover drops him. Real encounters at America’s shipping ports are overwhelmingly more banal, with customs officers generally not expecting to find containers stuffed with Krugerrands and cash—although one assumes it does happen from time to time—but for much of 2012 and 2013, they have seen a great deal of action among contraband vehicles. It’s not dictator-gold Benzes that U.S. Customs is hunting for, like the S-class in that Lethal Weapon 2 scene, nor tax-dodging Ferraris, or even 900-hp Nissan Skylines. No, the vehicle that’s the subject of the most scrutiny is that great British contribution to driving in mud, the Land Rover Defender. Customs and Border Protection, working with NHTSA, has seized more than 20 at ports in the past 18 months. In March, Homeland Security and CBP carted off almost 20 Defenders from a chiropractor’s house in suburban North Carolina. What’s going on?
A few years ago, Customs and Border Protection sat down with several federal agencies—whose regulations it enforces at the borders and ports—to discuss deeper collaboration. They set up an office called Import Safety Commercial Targeting and Analysis Center, a very federal name for a joint project that let officials from CBP and these other agencies work in the same building and figure out how to best enforce import rules. Customs executives asked NHTSA what its pain points were with unauthorized vehicles coming into the country. The answer? Defenders.
Between NHTSA’s regulations and emissions rules from the EPA, it’s very difficult to import a vehicle from overseas to the U.S., even for personal use. Anything manufactured in the past 25 years needs to be fully compliant with American regulations—including crash and engine testing—so unless you’re bringing a U.S.-spec car from overseas, it’s just about impossible. For vehicles 25 years old or older, all the rules are waived. From our view, the NHTSA and EPA regulations are onerous and self-defeating. We understand the importance of keeping unsafe cars from flooding American roads, but the 25-year exemption ensures that the only vehicles eligible for import are the least safe and dirtiest. This fits into a larger international trade issue, in which American new-car and safety and emissions standards don’t align with European ones, even though either set results in clean, safe cars. There’s been a token effort to harmonize these regulations for several decades, and automakers think they could save a fortune if they didn’t have to build cars to meet two sets of standards, but little progress has been made. For now, we’re stuck with the 25-year rule, and that’s the law.