NYC Messengers Face Deadliest Summer in Years
The Ride, October 2003
By Scott Mullen
Most Americans will rank carpal tunnel syndrome near the top of their occupational hazard list. For bike messengers, the conditions under which they work and thrive involve a different and more intense set of threats. The potential for injury--pulled muscles, cracked and bruised bones and road rash--is prevalent in this line of work. Death, too, is not uncommon. Late last July, within eight days of each other, two messengers were struck and killed by trucks in New York City.
Carlos 'Paisa' Gonzales, 31, was struck and killed at 2nd Ave. and 55th Street on July 22 and Abelardo 'Peru' Rodriguez, 51, was killed at 3rd and 60th Street on July 30. Ironically, Peru was killed on the day of Paisa's memorial, a vigil held at the scene of his death and attended by 70 cyclists.
"These are the first messenger deaths since January 1999," said Kevin Bolger, a.k.a. Squid, of the New York Bike Messenger Association. "It is always a shock. I have been to twelve memorials in my eleven years on the road."
Police reports indicate that a truck turned right from the center lane of traffic and struck Rodriguez, who reportedly had more than eighteen years of experience. According to Det. Tom Kuchma of the Deputy Commission for Public Information, the driver received two summonses for making an 'improper right turn' and having a cracked mirror. It is unclear whether the mirror played a factor in the crash. The driver will not face criminal charges.
"This was not a crime, it was a tragic accident," said Kuchma. "There
was no intent on the part of the driver to kill anyone."
Rodriguez's death raises legal questions about how to punish killer drivers who typically drive away with just a ticket. The civil justice system deals with cases of negligence but if a killer driver has no possessions or limited insurance, the victim loses. But lawyers maintain that finding a jury that will convict and sentence a killer driver in a criminal court is difficult. Despite the legal quandary, the preferred treatment of motorists remains clear.
"Drivers in general are treated too leniently," said Adam D. White, Esq., a NYC-based lawyer who caters to cyclists. "To some extent there is a degree of toleration...that if there is no alcohol or drugs involved, then it is chalked up to the risk of riding on the streets."
As of press time, nine cyclists have died on NYC streets this year. According to Police records, fifteen cyclists died during the same period last year.
"The Police need to crack down on dangerous drivers and aggressive drivers, speeding and red light running that drivers get away with on a daily basis," said Noah Budnick of Transportation Alternatives. "When Mayor Giuliani enforced a zero tolerance traffic campaign [in 1998] it made a difference."
According to TA, two days of police action during that campaign produced 10,000 summonses for moving violations, 840 for speeding and 200 arrests for driving with a revoked or suspended license.
Paisa and Peru were victims of traffic. Traffic calming and education of motorists, say advocates, will make the streets safer for all city cyclists.
"This is a sad time for everybody," said Squid. "Unfortunately this is a very real part of the job."