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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

The Obvious Fix for Killer Trash Trucks

Cities New York City

Last year, seven New Yorkers died under the wheels of private garbage trucks. In contrast, the city’s Department of Sanitation, a government agency, killed nobody. This seems an argument against the free market, which apparently can’t do something as easy as pick up the trash without running over pedestrians and bicyclists.

But the free market hasn’t failed. It’s responding to bad signals from the government. The city should enact and enforce basic safety laws so trash carters can compete on service and price, not on who can flout the most rules to cut costs.

A report from Kiera Feldman at the investigate-journalism outfit ProPublica paints a grim picture. The city picks up residential trash, but when most New Yorkers are asleep, a motley array of private trucks pick up business trash.

Many do so in a ragtag fashion, with drivers rushing through red lights and breaking the speed limit to get their work done before daylight — and traffic.

They drive trucks whose brakes fail, and their “helpers” on the back of the truck face hazards — from broken glass to crushers — that can sever fingers.

“The city should enact and enforce basic safety laws so trash carters can compete on service and price, not on who can flout the most rules to cut costs.”

Because the job is hard and dangerous, like construction work, it attracts people without a lot of other options and who are easily exploited on the job: men with criminal records and immigrants.

But the problem here isn’t a lack of regulation. Private hauling, thanks to decades of mob involvement, is a highly regulated, highly scrutinized industry.

There’s a whole city entity — the Business Integrity Commission — to deal with it. Most important, the city caps garbage-pickup prices so colluding bidders can’t keep them high, extorting captive customers who then can’t go elsewhere.

In a healthy free market, though, the city wouldn’t have to cap rates: Competition would control prices. It’s also unclear why the city wants prices to be low. New York’s goal, after all, is to send no trash to landfills by 2030, and higher prices for businesses that produce the trash might help.

But New York doesn’t have a healthy free market in garbage. Because the city has (understandably) focused so much on the Mafia, it’s missed more mundane problems.

Take the trucks. Haulage companies have no incentive to keep their trucks in good working order, with “luxuries” like reliable brakes. They face federal inspections, but those are inconsistent. The city should make regular, on-the-spot equipment inspections part of the requirement for haulers’ local licenses. When a truck catastrophically fails inspection, the city should seize it — just as it seizes illegal electric bikes from food deliverymen.

As for other equipment, requiring hi-viz jackets and heavy gloves would be easy to enforce. The workers, after all, are right there on the streets, night after night. Either they’re wearing obvious gear or not.

Then there’s speeding and red-light running. If one company directs its drivers to break these laws (or, at least, doesn’t wonder how they complete their routes so fast), then they all have to do it to keep up with the competition.

But if the city, with legislation from Albany, could install red-light and speed cameras everywhere, nobody would do it. The steep fines would change the whole business model. Failing that, the city could require garbage trucks to install speed monitors in each truck, with repeat violators losing their license.

Instead of focusing on basic safety, Mayor de Blasio is embarking on a much more ambitious plan to create trash-haulage zones, with companies winning a territory from the city rather than working with individual pick-up customers.

Proponents say it would reduce nighttime traffic: Right now, multiple trucks ply multiple routes. The risk, though, is that creating mini-monopolies encourages corruption: Would-be haulers of a particular zone are just going to donate lots of money to the mayor to win a desired territory.

Either way, without much better oversight of equipment and driving practices, zoning isn’t going to solve the fundamental problem. The lowest bidder is the one willing to cut costs by cutting corners, setting the tone for the rest of the market.

De Blasio calls himself a progressive. But a city that tolerates — and even encourages — dangerous driving and worker fatigue as the business model for commercial waste is not progressive; it’s worse than medieval.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post


Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow her on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post