See a Pattern of Deadly Dump Trucks? Don’t Bother Federal Safety Officials

The driver of a private garbage truck ignored a bicyclist riding alongside and crushed him as the truck rounded the corner of Varick Avenue and Meserole Street in Bushwick last Wednesday evening, has reported, citing a preliminary NYPD investigation. According to police, the victim was Eling Rivera, 51, of East New York (a conflicting identification has surfaced in this Streetsblog comment thread).

No definitive count is available, but Rivera’s death could well be the hundredth in which a garbage truck ran over a New York City pedestrian or cyclist over the past decade-and-a-half. Twenty-six such fatalities were recorded during a four-year period in the mid-1990s, a rate that equates to between six and seven per year, according to research I directed for Right Of Way in our 1999 report, Killed By Automobile [PDF, see pages 33-34].

With an average of 23.8 peds or cyclists killed per hundred million miles driven, garbage trucks had by far the highest fatality rate in the study, exceeding the all-vehicle average of 1.7 killed per hundred million miles by a factor of 14. Within the garbage truck category, the per-mile rate of killing pedestrians and cyclists was two-thirds higher for private haulers than for NYC Department of Sanitation trucks.

Six hours before Rivera was killed, operators of a Philadelphia garbage barge ignored a radio distress call from a stalled “duck boat” and rammed it, killing two tourists and sending 30 more into the Delaware River, the National Transportation Safety Board revealed yesterday.

Investigators from the NTSB, the federal agency chartered with determining causes of transportation accidents and formulating recommendations to improve transportation safety, are combing the Delaware River for clues in the duck boat-barge smashup. Yet none can be seen in Bushwick, just as no NTSB personnel have looked into any of the 100 or so other garbage truck-related pedestrian and cyclist fatalities dating to the mid-nineties.

The public associates the NTSB principally with investigating air crashes, and to a lesser extent with rail, marine and pipeline incidents. Yet the safety board’s charter (PDF, section 1131) also requires it to:

Investigate… and establish the facts, circumstances, and cause or probable cause of… any other accident related to the transportation of individuals or property when the Board decides [that] the accident involves problems of a recurring character. (emphasis added)

Citing this mandate, I wrote on behalf of Right of Way to NTSB chair Jim Hall in 1997, asking his agency to analyze what I said were “Two types of accident causation [that] are particularly recurrent in recent bicyclist fatalities in New York City: Dooring and interference from heavy trucks.” My letter was passed to the director of the USDOT Office of Environment, Energy and Safety, who dutifully cited ongoing agency programs while ignoring my plea to intervene in dooring and truck incidents. Further entreaties to Mr. Hall and other staffers at both USDOT and the NTSB were equally unavailing.

Yet even without federal support, municipalities are hardly powerless to reduce heavy truck dangers to cyclists and pedestrians. As the Portland (OR) Office of Transportation reports, fleets can be required to equip heavy trucks with “under-run” protective devices such as metal plates and guide bars to prevent cyclists from being dragged under the truck wheels. “Aspheric mirrors” can reduce truckers’ blind spots, without the visual distortion found in standard convex mirrors.

Proactive policing could summons operators for reckless maneuvers such as unsignaled turning, aggressive passing and rapid backing — practices that are relatively rare for NYC Sanitation drivers but appear endemic among less-regulated private haulers. Taking the long view, taxes on packaging and disposable products, along with policies encouraging families to avoid manufactured food in favor of fresh food, could shrink dump truck traffic at the source by reducing the need for garbage collection in the first place.

But don’t look for Jim Hall to help. Hall, who stepped down from NTSB in 2001, is being groomed by the cellular communications industry to be the public face of a new lobbying campaign to fend off federal restrictions on use of mobile devices by drivers (watch the PowerPoint). The campaign, billed as The Drive Coalition (Drivers for Responsibility, Innovation and Vehicle Education), suffered a setback last week when criticism by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood forced them to shelve their rollout, according to Transportation Nation.

Perhaps safety campaigners should dust off that 1997 Right Of Way letter and send it to LaHood.

  • Kay

    As a pedestrian I have 2 comments:

    1. This is a terrible situation which has to be fixed.

    2. I see way to many cyclists running red lights and going the wrong way on streets putting pedestrians at risk. Cyclists, you need to clean up your own act as well.

  • I’m not too terribly surprised that the NTSB is failing to meet its responsibility to “Investigate… and establish the facts, circumstances, and cause or probable cause of… any other accident related to the transportation of individuals or property when the Board decides [that] the accident involves problems of a recurring character.” Isn’t this the same country which continues to favor and build infrastructure for a mode of transportation which consistently kills roughly 45,000 Americans every year?

  • We have a situations where literally the fatalities from a medium sized plane occur every day on our streets & highways and is a major cause of death for many younger age groups. The NTSB has a clear duty to investigate and make recommendations.

  • kevd

    Private garbage haulers are the scariest things on the road. I’m terrified of them. NY Sanitation trucks are less frightening, but they certainly rank up there with Access-A-Ride vans in the “vehicles I try to stay really far away from” category.

    Also, pedestrians constantly jay walk in front of me when I have a green light. This happens every morning at Astor Place. Sure, sometimes pedestrians are killed when doing nothing wrong and others are at fault. But I will simply not permit any discussion of pedestrian fatalities or safety measures to occur without mentioning that some of them BREAK THE LAW, because I am an obnoxious and annoying blow-hard.

  • A recent and all too accurate spoof of how we commit our resources to uncommon threats:,17697/

  • kaja

    All the discussion about the law is scary in itself. What ever happened to emergent phenomena, natural behavior, and self-organizing systems? Must we all OBEY?

  • Doug

    Let me add another class of dangerous vehicles to steer well clear of: rental trucks. I did an intercity move a few months back, and ended up driving a 24′ box truck. The stopping distance is huge, the visibility is minor, and the handling is awkward. These vehicles should be absolutely illegal to drive without a special license. I managed to make a turn at one corner and not only drill side the truck into a telephone pole, but rip the bumper off a parked car on the corner — without noticing at all.

  • Once or twice I’ve watched private garbage trucks make the rounds on Union Square 10 or 11 in the evening. Quite a scary spectacle. Other private garbage trucks at other times also. Also other trucking.

    City sanitation workers seem much better.

    May have to do with working conditions, drivers over-worked, stressed out, likely easily fixed and regulated like the taxi industry and Giuliani’s crack-down on bad drivers when things got out of control; ensuring good working conditions and pay is the real answer.

  • On the way home from work in midtown after midnight, I’ve seen private carting company drivers doing crazy stuff. Like driving ~30 MPH the wrong way up Lexington or on the wrong side of 57th Street, and backing right up onto the curb.

  • joe

    the reason the ntsb does not investigate local (intrastate) commercial vehecles is because it does not have the legal athority to do so. These trucks are regulated by state and local agencys. New York state is responsible not the feds.

  • MRN

    Hideously careless misuse of the term “factor of”. It’s almost a factor of 2, not 14. It’s simply 14 times higher rate for garbage trucks that the fleet average.

  • @ MRN: I don’t follow you. If all motor vehicles killed peds and cyclists at a rate of 1.7 fatalities per hundred million miles driven, and garbage trucks did the same at a rate of 23.8, isn’t the relationship between the two rates a factor of fourteen (since 23.8 / 1.7 = 14)?

  • The criteria that must be looked at when choosing the right truck rental to move.