May 30, 2002

Private garbage trucks most likely to kill
The Villager
By Caroline Binham

[ Return to T.A. Quotes in the Media | Read the latest news on this subject | View this article on the Villager Web site ]

The recent death of a newsstand owner in Chinatown highlights that little has changed since a report appeared in 1999 citing garbage trucks as the most dangerous vehicle on the city's roads.

The report said that garbage haulers killed eight people a year. Mee Sun Jung was one such fatality. The 87-year-old newspaper vendor, who walked with two canes, was struck by a garbage truck on his way to work at the intersection between Chrystie and Grand Sts. on May 13.

An elderly East Villager, Kurt Kjellin, who like Jung, walked hunched over and slowly, was also struck and killed by a private garbage truck over a year ago while crossing a sidestreet off Second Ave. on his way home from his antiques store.

The report, researched and written by Right of Way, an organization that promotes pedestrian rights, was based on figures from the Police Department's crash records, from 1994 to 1997. It showed that on average, garbage trucks killed 24 pedestrians, cyclists or "people not in automobiles" per 100 million miles driven, far more than any other vehicle on the road.

"Garbage trucks are not driving that many miles, and are in neighborhoods where there are a lot of people, as this is where the trash is," said Charles Komanoff, author of the '99 "Killed by Automobile" report. Buses, with their proximity to curbs, pedestrians and cyclists, actually killed more people - 53 in the four years studied for the report - but because garbage trucks traveled fewer miles, their risk ratio increased.

The report proved that all garbage trucks are not the same. "One important finding is that private carters are almost twice as likely to hit a pedestrian as Department of Sanitation trucks," said Komanoff. "The two-to-one ratio strongly suggests that training and culture play a role." Private carters are overseen by the city's Trade Waste Commission.

At the city's Department of Sanitation, even before being hired, employees must maintain a valid commercial driver's license. "We have a safety and training division that instructs employees on proper procedure," said John Pampalone, in the department's office of public information, "This covers everything from the lifting of dumpsters to the rules of the road."

All department employees take a mandatory 13-day training program and are subject to the department's own system of points: just as a regular driver would earn points for running a red light, so a Sanitation employee would rack up points for a driving violation. In addition to this internal system, monitored by field supervisors, if an employee speeds while off-duty, the department is notified. Random drug and alcohol tests are also implemented. "The department stresses and strives to have safety at all times, whether in the field or in our garage," said Pampalone.

The truck that struck Jung was owned by a private carter based in Newark, Gotham Recycling Resources. The same company's employees were involved in an assault on April 10, after a taxi driver cut off the garbage truck on W. 18th St. The taxi driver ended up stabbing the driver of the truck, Richard Bush. The company failed to return calls requesting comment on their training techniques in light of these two recent events.

Private carters' licenses and conduct are regulated by the city's Trade Waste Commission, which was created in 1996 by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani to oversee the rising numbers of private garbage collection companies after his push to privatize more of the city's waste removal. Their education in driving and training, however, does not come under the commission's jurisdiction.

The fact that the private carters cited in the report were owned by different companies suggests there might also be a problem with the design of garbage trucks. In the case of buses, data in the report showed that most accidents occurred when buses made a turn, suggesting that bus designs may make it difficult for drivers to see pedestrians or cyclists in certain positions. Could the same be said of garbage haulers?

"Certainly, the nature of the trucks plays a part. They're big, bulky, hard-to-maneuver vehicles," said Komanoff, "There might very well be a design fault, but it's hard to determine from data alone: the detail [about accidents when turning] we received with buses is highly unusual."

Another organization that promotes the rights of pedestrians, Transportation Alternatives, has tried to use the findings of the '99 Right of Way report to press officials into action, all to little avail, according to Ellen Cavanagh, the organization's campaign coordinator. Komanoff also claimed that no comment was given by the relevant state agencies who were sent the report in '99.

Cavanagh said, "The very specialized design of the [garbage] trucks and the types of road they are on means that special training is needed so that they can do their job without killing people."

[ Return to T.A. Quotes in the Media | Read the latest news on this subject | View this article on the Villager Web site ]