Road Warrior: Cresskill fatality underscores risks truckers will take

Submitted by New Jersey Truck Accident Attorney, Jeffrey Hark.

Fatal Truck Accident

Jina Yang at a memorial in Cresskill where her son, Youngrok Lee, 13, was recently killed on his bicycle in a crash with a truck.

If you drive down Grant Avenue in Cresskill, you can’t help but notice more than three-dozen floral bouquets spread evenly on the ground at the corner of Jefferson Avenue where a 13-year-old boy on his way to school was killed 11 days ago in a most unusual way.

This street corner — a few blocks from two schools — is where Youngrok Lee (Ricky to his friends) was riding his bike east on Grant when it collided with the trailer of an 18-wheel truck that was turning from Jefferson Avenue to Grant.

The crash underscores an issue that has been troubling North Jerseyans for at least two decades — dangerous truck traffic that has moved off the interstates and major arteries into the once-quiet suburbs. In town after town, residents are demanding that big rigs be subject to greater oversight.

Most of the questions in the Cresskill case — like that one — remain unanswered pending investigation by the state police and the Bergen County prosecutor. Why did the driver leave state and county roadways? How exactly did the crash occur? Why didn’t Ricky’s helmet prevent fatal injury?

Fatal crashes that involve the biggest vehicles on the road (18-wheelers driven by professionals) and the smallest (two-wheeled conveyances operated solely by leg-power) are rare by definition, especially when they occur on local roads in sleepy bedroom communities with populations less than 9,000.

Garden State roads typically average about 14 fatal bike crashes a year — three so far this year, two of them in Bergen County. Deadly truck crashes averaged 32 annually from 2009 to 2013, according to state police figures.

A Harvard University study last year showed that American bicycle trips more than doubled to 4 billion in 2009 compared with 2001. Research conducted by the International Journal of Injury Control and Safety Promotion showed trucks were involved in 11 percent of road fatalities nationally, though they accounted for only 8 percent of highway traffic.

At the same time, the infrastructure that supports all vehicles has become weaker while expenses have risen dramatically, said Cathleen Lewis of the New Jersey branch of AAA.

“As the price of tolls rises, truck drivers find local roads to avoid them,” Lewis explained. “And when bridges close for repairs, they do the same.”

Faced with fewer options, truck drivers seek local alternatives — or shortcuts — despite weight restrictions that require them to stay off local suburban streets unless they’re making deliveries.

But in a densely populated region with major interstates and toll roads leading to Manhattan, the “making deliveries” exception is often hard to swallow.

For example, Phil DeVincentis, a Lyndhurst retiree, watches a steady parade of trucks sail past his Kingsland Avenue home each day.

DeVincentis and his landlord, Jack Raguseo, sometimes flag down trucks and demand that drivers tell them why they thought they were entitled to break the posted, local ordinance that bans trucks exceeding Lyndhurst’s 4-ton weight limit.

In Ho-Ho-Kus, Donna Cioffi frequently does the same in an effort to protect Powderhorn Road.

Drivers usually offer the same responses: They didn’t see the signs. They were making deliveries. The GPS sent them there.

After the Cresskill crash, driver Alberto Vazquez blamed his GPS. That didn’t dissuade local cops, however, from ticketing him for violating the 4-ton limit. Police believe Vazquez left the county road system, which allows big rigs, to head north — either to Norwood or Northvale via Knickerbocker Road, a county artery.

“We have no authority over the companies that program GPS,” explained Cresskill Deputy Police Chief James Domville.

Police in Lyndhurst and Ho-Ho-Kus say the same. Still, drivers shouldn’t rely too heavily on GPS, Domville warned. “One of our one-way streets, for example, comes up as two-way traffic on some GPS systems,” he said.

The units designed specifically for trucks are much more sophisticated. Some offer information on road restrictions like weight limits, for example. Some have extra-large screens.

“They even come with foreign-language translations, too,” said Lenny Amberger, a former trucker from Dumont.

“They’re great, but they’re expensive,” added Patrolman Tim Franco, Fair Lawn’s public safety officer. “They can easily cost $400.”

Some top $900. But do all truckers use them?

“Not really,” said Franco,

“For many drivers, they’re much too expensive,” said Amberger, “and that’s what gets them in trouble because a basic GPS usually just gives you the shortest distance to make your trip — no frills.”

The level of sophistication of Vazquez’s equipment is unknown pending the results of the investigation. Last week, he was charged only with violating Cresskill’s truck-weight ordinance, even though these restrictions aren’t posted on signs on Jefferson Avenue.

“They don’t have to be,” said Franco. “Drivers are expected to know that county roads are the truck routes but the local roads are not.”

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Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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