While driving on the Hutchinson River Parkway one fine morning, I heard a noise that you should never hear on a Westchester County parkway: the unmistakable backfire of a tractor-trailer truck.
The road shook under the great industrial weight, or so I imagined. Jurassic Park came to mind.
Impact tremor, I thought.
And there it was, in the rearview mirror: an ugly, hot, diesel-snorting, exhaust-belching, 18-wheeled beast furiously bearing down on my hapless four-cylinder Focus. It was like the scene in the Spielberg movie, when the T. rex is in hot pursuit of the tourist Jeep, and a terrified Jeff Goldblum screams, “Must go faster!”
I floored it.
My aim was to beat the truck to the North Street Bridge at White Plains because I knew the rig couldn’t possibly squeeze through the underpass. Failure, I was sure, meant being impaled by jagged shards of steel and crushed under a spilled load of something morbidly funny, like frozen turkeys or toilet fixtures.
Happily, I survived to tell thee — the truck driver either pulled up short of the bridge or was stopped by an alert cop.
In any event, rogue trucks have been a parkway menace for a generation — a disturbing trend that has coincided with the rise of tractor-trailers as the dominant means of moving freight and the advent of GPS, which mindlessly misdirects bleary-eyed, transcontinental truckers onto forbidden roads.
According to the county Department of Public Safety, there were 1,001 tractor-trailer reports in 2016, the most in a decade. Last year, the number of incidents dropped only slightly, to 934. This could be a banner year for bridge collision with 42 strikes counted through June, outpacing last year’s 12-month total of 71.
The Hutchinson River Parkway invariably leads the pack, with as much as 70 percent of the bridge strikes, followed by the Saw Mill River Parkway (20 percent) and the Bronx River Parkway (9 percent).
For the most part, trucks are viewed mainly as an annoying fact of life for parkway commuters and the cost of doing business for the trucking industry. It has caused untold hours of traffic headaches, fines, and impoundment fees. There have been injuries, but, remarkably, no fatalities.
Trucks were a danger nobody could foresee when the county’s unique road system was created for recreational purposes at the dawn of the Automobile Age. The first of these, the scenic Bronx River Parkway, which opened in 1925, was hailed by Governor Alfred E. Smith as an “enormous benefit to the millions of people who seek fresh air and recreation and who may now travel from the city streets through a continuous narrow park into the open country.”
Unfortunately, master builder Robert Moses did not share Smith’s egalitarian viewpoint. According to biographer Robert A. Caro, when the Hutchinson River Parkway was built, Moses ordered the bridge underpasses be constructed with low ceilings, not because he feared trucks but for purely racist reasons: He wanted to impede buses carrying poor black people from the inner city.
Nevertheless, in theory, the parkways were invented for the purpose of enhancing Westchester’s quality of life.
“They were built for cars,” said Assemblyman Thomas J. Abinanti, a Greenburgh Democrat. “They were not built for trucks. Nobody expected that trucks would be roaming onto these roads. The world has changed a lot.”
Despite “No Trucks” warning signs, increased fines, educational programs, and pledges to equip truckers with appropriate GPS systems, the problem keeps getting worse.
After three bridge collisions occurred in the space of two weeks, County Executive George Latimer had enough, declaring, “This cannot go on — and I am adamant that it will not.”
Abinanti is practically obsessed with the trucks-on-the-parkways problem. Earlier this summer, he pushed a bill through the Assembly that called for the placement of barriers at key county parkway entrances. To his dismay, the bill failed to pass the Senate on the last day of the legislative session, in June.
As it stands, this has been a story for traffic reporters. It will probably take a tragedy to make the evening news — and only then will it finally be taken seriously.
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think: email firstname.lastname@example.org