Garbage trucks follow different rules 

Arturo S. from Hunters Point asks this week’s question:

Q: “Last week, I heard about a garbage truck that killed a bicyclist. These garbage trucks don’t seem to think that they have to drive like you and me. They are really big trucks and hard to see around. I see them driving up the wrong side of the street and basically doing whatever they want to. They backed up one day and hit my aunt’s car and took off. What’s the deal with garbage trucks. Are they somehow special?”

A: The facts of the accident last week are still being investigated, so I will not address that specific tragedy but instead will address the issue of the laws covering garbage and refuse haulers.

In a recent study, it was shown that on average, garbage trucks kill more pedestrians and cyclists per 100 million miles driven than almost any other vehicle on the road. Garbage trucks do not travel long distances, instead spending the majority of their time in neighborhoods, so the risk ratio is increased as these vehicles travel in highly populated areas. Many people get annoyed that garbage trucks pick up the trash early in the morning, noisily waking them from their slumber, but these predawn hours are designed to minimize interactions between the trucks and the traveling public, who are, for the most part, still asleep.

Over the past decade, the trucks have changed so that they no longer involve a two-person crew, but are handled by a single operator. These vehicles have also changed so that the operator is often standing while driving on the curb side rather than sitting toward the middle of the road like in passenger vehicles. This creates a whole new host of risks associated with additional decreased visibility in large vehicles that already have many blind spots.

Garbage trucks are treated differently than passenger vehicles under the California Vehicle Code. They have greater freedoms in some instances and greater restrictions in others. Pursuant to Vehicle Code Section 21509, certain rules of the road do not apply to the operation of a garbage truck while it is actually engaged in the collection of rubbish or garbage within a business or residence district, if the front turn-signal lamps at each side of the vehicle are being flashed simultaneously and the rear turn-signal lamps at each side of the vehicle are being flashed simultaneously. This includes an exemption from traveling only on the right-hand side of the road, traveling in bike paths, traveling down one-way streets the wrong way, stopping behind a row of diagonally parked cars and using up more than its half of the roadway.

The exemption provided by Section 21509 only applies when the truck is actually picking up garbage, not when the vehicle is being driven to and from work. Although it exempts the driver from receiving a ticket for violating these rules of the road, it does not relieve the driver from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all people using the road or protect him or her from the consequences of an arbitrary exercise of the privilege granted. So, while they may not be ticketed, or held liable simply because they drove on the wrong side of the road, they may still be held negligent if they fail to act safely under the circumstances.

As there are no longer two-person crews with a refuse engineer on the back to signal the driver, the risk of a backing-up injury or death has risen dramatically. In 2004, a young girl named Kaylie was killed when a garbage truck backed over her. This led to the introduction of a bill, AB 1673, which became law in 2005 (Kaylie’s Law) amending the Vehicle Code to require the installation of cameras that allow the driver to see behind the truck at all times.

California Vehicle Code Section 2700(b) now requires, in addition to back-up alarms and auto-braking devices, a rear-facing camera on trucks purchased after 2010. Although it is not expressly required that trucks sold before 2010 be retrofitted, when representing my clients who have been injured by backing-up garbage trucks, I have argued that the failure to have done so is negligence when considering the high risk of injury and the inexpensive cost associated with such modifications.

As this area of law is somewhat complex, anyone involved in a collision with a garbage truck should contact a trial lawyer with experience in the field to determine who is liable and to assist him or her in obtaining fair and just compensation for the injuries.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to

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