Here’s a puzzle for you: If a fire truck, a police car, an ambulance, and a United States Postal Service (USPS) mail truck all meet at a four-way intersection, which vehicle would have the right-of-way? If you say that the USPS truck, as a federal vehicle, gets to go while the local and state vehicles must wait, you’re not alone. In fact, a myth that postal trucks have the right-of-way over every other non-federal vehicle has persisted for 100 years. But it’s just that, a myth.
The 1920 crash that started the myth
Picture this: it’s a hot August day in Manhattan in 1920. You are standing downtown, at the corner of Watts Street and Varick Street. You smell smoke somewhere and your heart races. Then you see fire trucks, bells ringing, tear through the city to put out the flames. As Engine Company No 55’s hose truck crosses the intersection, you hear a loud bang. A USPS mail truck has t-boned the fire truck.
Everyone stops and a 36-year-old mail truck driver named Filipo Gateo gets out and begins to argue with the firemen. He shouts that he, as a mailman, has the right-of-way.
Do you believe Gateo? Magistrate Francis X. Mancuso of Manhattan traffic court certainly did not. He admitted that the mail truck had the right of way over certain vehicles but added that during an emergency the fire truck had the right of way. The magistrate charged the mail truck driver with reckless driving. He even hit Gateo with a whopping $35 fine.
This case set a clear legal precedent for mail trucks versus emergency responders–at least in the state of New York. But it was also covered by newspapers. Gateo’s assertions seem to have captured the public imagination long after the magistrate’s decision was forgotten. Why? Because the myth of the USPS mail trucks’ right of way persists.
The mail truck right of way debate
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As early as 1887, people have been debating whether postal vehicles have the right of way over emergency vehicles–according to Snopes. First in newspapers, and later on talk shows, people have been asking this question. The four-way intersection scenario above is as favorite place to start the debate. Over the years, people have also come up with some fascinating, if not flawed, reasons that a USPS mail truck should have the right of way.
In 1999, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution quoted a Mr. Sulzer suggesting that the postal trucks still have the legal right of way because once upon a time, mail trains had a legal right of way, forcing freight trains onto the nearest possible siding to speed along their route.
In Make Way for Emergency Vehicles, Jordan W Charness suggested that the mail truck had the right of way because it might unknowingly be carrying a piece of mail so important that it trumped any local fire, crime, or medical emergency. He named a declaration of war as an example.
Snopes settles the mail truck debate
The fact-checkers at Snopes decided to settle the mail truck right of way debate for once and all. The organization poured over various traffic laws and codes and found no state with a vehicle code specifying that mail trucks have the right of way over all vehicles, including emergency vehicles. It also concluded that there is no federal statute giving mail trucks the right of way.
Snopes decided to dig deeper and actually put the question to the Los Angeles Times. The Los Angeles times consulted Bill Madison, spokesman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, and concluded that the, “mail truck does not have the right of way. Like other vehicles and even pedestrians, it must pull to the side of the road to let the emergency vehicles pass.”
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