Trash, crash, get a pass
Philly’s trash truck drivers crashed 2,000 times, avoided discipline, and cost taxpayers $4.8 million.
The drivers stuck behind the white sanitation truck on Pine Street were visibly frustrated during Tuesday’s morning rush. Allen Williams was slowly piloting his 32-foot-long truck toward 21st Street, as two workers collected recyclables from the curb in the rain.
A woman in a Toyota RAV4 decided she had waited enough and drove into the bike lane. The workers yelled at her to stop. She kept going, squeezing between the sidewalk and the side of the truck, leaving barely any daylight.
"You can’t do that!” Williams yelled, stepping out of his cabin, as the woman drove onto the sidewalk and managed to avoid striking the truck.
Tuesday’s close encounter in Center City helps explain some staggering statistics that have cost Philadelphia taxpayers millions of dollars.
Since June 2015, the city’s sanitation fleet has been involved in about 2,000 accidents — averaging 440 each year, or more than one a day. Two-thirds of those accidents were labeled the city drivers’ fault.
New York has six times the population of Philadelphia but just three times the number of accidents. Viewed another way, Philadelphia’s sanitation trucks get into accidents every 3,800 miles, while New York City trucks hit something every 6,300 miles.
In the last 4½ years, Williams has been in 19 accidents — the record for city trash truck drivers within that period — eight of them “preventable,” or his fault. In 2016 alone, he had five accidents that were his fault, two of them in the same month.
In one case the following year, he struck a 48-year-old disabled man at 21st & Arch in Center City, pinning his wheelchair against a parked car. The very next day, Williams was in another accident.
Philadelphia Streets Department rules, established in 1970, require that drivers with two preventable accidents within a month, or four within a year, be demoted or dismissed.
But the city hasn’t demoted or fired a crash-prone sanitation driver in recent years.
Instead, Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams says accident-prone drivers are sent back to training classes or suspended for a few days, though the city would not provide specific numbers. The accidents continue.
Including Allen Williams, 72 of the city’s 500 sanitation drivers should have been demoted or let go based on the number of accidents they caused between January 2015 and this June. Of that 72, 55 were involved in accidents after they had enough infractions that should have resulted in disciplinary action.
The commissioner acknowledges his department has failed to follow the regulations and “we need to improve.”
“It’s very concerning that if someone gets involved in multiple accidents and there’s no follow-up, that that can lead to future accidents, and that shouldn’t occur," he said in an interview. “We have to do a better job in terms of monitoring when those drivers are having trouble, either through training or following up on disciplinary actions.”
“Here’s a guy who survived Korea"
Dominic Faiola had walked the same half-mile route thousands of times.
A couple of times a week, the lifelong bachelor would leave his childhood home on Bambrey Street before noon, headed for Klein’s Supermarket on Fairmount Avenue to pick up a bag or two of groceries. Then back up 25th Street he’d walk.
On Dec. 10, 2014, he had just crossed Fairmount when John Williams reversed his 30-ton Philadelphia sanitation truck.
“It caught him off guard,” recalled Betty McGuire, a worker at the real estate office on the corner who had watched Faiola slowly make his way across the street.
The truck knocked Faiola, 84, onto a car stopped at the light. Almost in slow motion, he fell to the ground, McGuire recalled. Apples and oranges rolled out of his bag and onto the street.
John Williams, who a year before had injured two motorists in another accident, stopped as soon as he realized he had hit Faiola. He and the two other workers who were sitting in the cabin with him rushed over to check on the man. McGuire called 911.
At Hahnemann Hospital, Faiola underwent surgery for a broken right hip and lumbar spine. He never recovered, dying a week later. It was the Sanitation Division’s most recent fatality, and fourth in seven years.
“When he got hit by the trash truck, I was like, ‘Yo, God. Here’s a guy who survived Korea and ... ‚’ ” said Joe Ferry, a longtime bartender at Krupa’s, the corner bar where Faiola often held court. “Then you get hit by a trash truck in your own neighborhood?’ I thought that was a little unfair on God’s part.”
“Like going through a maze”
In their defense, city officials say the 2,000 accidents between January 2015 and this June make up less than 1 percent of the times trucks ply their routes. Every day, about 230 trucks wind through city streets, collecting trash and recycling, dumping out Big Belly trash cans. By week’s end, the trucks cover 36,000 miles.
Crashing into cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians has resulted in dozens of claims and lawsuits. The cost to taxpayers in the last five years: $4.8 million.
Union president Charles Carrington said that many of the accidents involving trash trucks are a result of other motorists trying to speed around the truck or parking in a way that blocks narrow city streets.
“It’s like going through a maze,” said Carrington, a truck operator whose union, AFSCME District Council 33 Local 427, represents the city’s 1,200 sanitation workers.
All current drivers mentioned in this story either declined to comment or did not return a reporter’s calls. Repeated efforts to interview Allen Williams were unsuccessful. Met on his morning route Tuesday, he responded briefly to a reporter’s questions: “Not guilty.”
Another factor, Carrington said, is that the trucks are typically packed beyond capacity, weighing down the truck and compromising their air brakes. A standard truck is designed to hold about seven or eight tons of garbage. But the workers, he said, are asked to compact in nine or 10 tons sometimes — so that they don’t have to return to the dump more than twice a shift.
Recently retired drivers explained the hazards they’d faced. They described city streets as obstacle courses where other drivers are increasingly distracted and pedestrians are often lost under their headphones. Department supervisors demand that trash be picked up from streets that drivers worry they can’t squeeze through.
“You snap a mirror off or something. It would’ve been preventable if you didn’t go down that route — but what are you going to do?”
“You snap a mirror off or something. It would’ve been preventable if you didn’t go down that route — but what are you going to do?” said Edward Mack, who drove more than 30 years. “I feel for these guys. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. … These guys are underpaid. They have a family to feed and are still doing their jobs.”
Full-time drivers make between $42,000 and $49,000 a year. They often work into the evenings and weekends on overtime in bad weather.
Mack said there are some bad apples and guys who drink on the job. But those are few, he said. As commercial license holders, sanitation truck drivers are tested for drugs and alcohol at random.
Lack of discipline
Before his truck hit Faiola in 2014, John Williams had struck a car driven by Constance Burke and carrying John Prosser on Glenwood Avenue in Brewerytown. The pair sued the city and an arbitrator found Williams 100% negligent, ordering the city to pay Prosser $15,000 and $7,425 to Burke.
Thomas J. Gibbons, the attorney who represented Burke and Prosser, said that legally he couldn’t bring up Williams’ driving history as evidence. But he said he was shocked to hear about the accident involving Faiola.
“You think, ‘Oh, my God! He killed someone and he’s still driving a trash truck.' ... What does this guy have to do to be reprimanded?” Gibbons said.
“He killed someone and he’s still driving a trash truck… What does this guy have to do to be reprimanded?”
Two months after striking Faiola, Williams was involved in another accident. He had three more until his retirement in 2017. His driving record before the fatality is unclear. The city agreed to release drivers’ names for all accidents from January 2015 to this June, but not the underlying accident reports.
After a sanitation truck driver gets into an accident, a two-person safety team studies police reports and the driver’s account. In the most serious cases, the investigators go to the scene.
Union representatives complain that the review process is arbitrary and that the department should conduct on-scene investigations for most accidents.
Commissioner Williams is hoping that new technology — cameras and GPS that can track speed — will make it easier to determine who was at fault.
Both of those tools might have helped settle who was actually at fault in February 2015, when Tiffany Heisler was driving along Disston Street in Tacony on her way to salsa rehearsal. As she crossed Keystone Street, a city trash truck driven by Derrick Robinson rammed into the side of her car.
“He struck me in the middle and took me to the middle of the next street,” Heisler said in an interview.
According to Heisler, now 25, Robinson was barreling down Keystone Street and missed the four-way stop sign. The city ruled that the accident was not his fault.
Since then, Robinson has been involved in at least 11 other accidents, four of which were labeled his fault in 2018, and should have led at least to a demotion, given city regulations. This year he struck another vehicle.
Heisler, meanwhile, had to quit dancing. She complains of not being able to stand for longer than 15 minutes, which she blames on the accident. The city paid $15,000 to help cover her medical expenses.
“It’s a shame,” she said, told of Robinson’s other accidents. “And now he’s causing damages that’s long-term. … Those trucks are not little.”
Other trash truck victims got nothing from the city, despite findings their accidents were preventable. Some complained of difficulty navigating the process. Others told of missing the six-month deadline to file a claim.
In Philadelphia, if you are hurt by a city trash truck, compensation is capped at $500,000.
Faiola’s family got $450,000 for his 2014 death. David Taylor, the disabled man struck by Allen Williams, received $20,000.
Compare that to the exposure faced by private haulers. The family of Emily Fredericks, 24, a pastry chef killed by a private trash truck while riding her bicycle in Center City in 2017, settled for $6 million.
Unlike in California, New York and New Jersey, where there are no caps for government injury claims, attempts to raise the cap in Pennsylvania have not gotten much traction.
Only those who can prove permanent injuries may attempt to collect compensation in Pennsylvania for medical expenses. According to several plaintiffs’ attorneys, a driver’s history is irrelevant when suing the government since punitive damages aren’t allowed.
Asked Marc Simon, an attorney who has brought many personal-injury cases against the city: “Why should it be any different for a government agency?”
When the Kenney administration released its Vision Zero plan in 2017, aiming to end traffic fatalities by 2030, the city said it would lead by example. That meant improving operator training and adding new technology to all its vehicles.
Since last year, the city has equipped more than 60 sanitation trucks and street sweepers with 360-degree cameras and guardrails on the sides, a protection to keep bicyclists and pedestrians from getting trapped underneath.
Keith Warren, deputy commissioner for sanitation, said that even with safety features, the trucks won’t be accident-free.
"We still have incidents of cars [in tight streets] and knocking down mirrors because that’s just the nature of the kind of work where we are,” Warren said.
Even so, Dia Williams Adams wishes the city better monitored its drivers.
The SUV of her mother, community activist Carol Mims, who died this past September, was totaled in West Philadelphia by a sanitation truck driven by Kevin Thompson. It was the third accident deemed his fault in 2016.
“Maybe not get them out of a job, but definitely downgrade them and move them to a different position," she said, "because perhaps driving is not their forte.”