Filming idling trucks seems like an easy way to earn a little extra cash, but the bounty hunters of New York’s Citizens Air Complaint Program need to use guile, guts and patience to make thousands of dollars a year off of trucking companies breaking the law. They are rewarded with 25 percent of the fines issued to companies, as well as the thrill of the hunt.
The New York Times spoke to a few of the 20 or so citizens who regularly report on illegally idling trucks. All it takes is just over three minutes worth of video (one minute if in front of a school) to make $87.50 out of a $350 fine — possibly more for repeat offenders. The program has grown by leaps and bounds, much to drivers’ chagrin, which has occasionally led to assaults:
The program has vastly increased the number of complaints of idling trucks sent to the city, from just a handful before its creation in 2018 to more than 12,000 last year. Some of those complaints turn menacing when truck drivers react.
“I go out thinking I’m going to get assaulted,” said Ernest Welde, 47, an environmental attorney. “I’ve had my bags stolen by truck drivers. I’ve been physically assaulted. I’ve had to call the police a couple of times.”
Another man, Eric Eisenberg, had a similar experience across town last year. An Amazon driver and two colleagues noticed Mr. Eisenberg pointing his phone’s camera at their idling truck, knocked him to the ground and held him down, according to a lawsuit Mr. Eisenberg filed in January.
“Yeah, it’s like that, papa,” one of the men said, according to the lawsuit.
An 81-year-old man who made $64,000 last year uses elaborate props to disguise his intentions towards idling trucks while on his daily walks. Another told the Times he stood to make over $200,000 on fines, if the city approved all of his cases.
And that’s the rub: Getting cases approved and through the legal system is a laughably convoluted process, especially considering the city, as well as the citizen, stands to make big bucks with an improved system:
For every fine it issues, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the program, seems to wave away others for reasons that, to the reporters, seem arbitrary: The name of the company is not legible on the truck door, even though the license plate would reveal the owner. The truck’s engine isn’t clearly audible on the video, even if smoke can be seen coming out of the exhaust pipe.
Making the video is the easy part of the complaint. “Now the work starts,” Mr. Slapikas said. Videos and photos must be compressed and time-stamped and accompanied by screen shots of the identifying information. Originally, a notary’s signature was required, but today, a sworn statement from the reporter is sufficient.
There is more work: It is the responsibility of the citizen reporters, after filing their complaints, to track them through the system of summonses and court hearings. Many are surprised to learn that it is also their responsibility to determine whether a truck is a repeat offender, and therefore liable for a larger fine — and the reporter a larger bounty. The reporters said they spend hours combing through open data records to see if trucks have been cited before — and wonder why the city doesn’t do this in the first place.
The city made $2.4 million in fines last year, a 24 percent increase over before the program was initiated. Why would a city with notorious traffic and air pollution problems leave so much money on the table? You’d think of all the places in the world New York would have a state-of-the-art traffic violation system, but it appears not to be the case. Still, citizens passionate about clean air and looking to make some cash on the side stick with it. Take a look at the entire entertaining and interesting report.