Every day, hundreds of thousands of postal workers show up to work, pick up their arrow lock keys, get into their postal-service-owned vehicles and begin their rounds. And every day, for reasons that range from personal negligence to bad road design, a fraction of these workers break traffic laws while doing their job. This generally goes without penalty. The postal service and its employees aren’t liable for traffic violations issued by lower levels of government. When traffic cameras issue tickets to vehicles driven by USPS staff, the bill goes unpaid, much to the chagrin of local governments.
This is by design. The USPS “ticket exemption”, as the policy is commonly known, prevents cash-hungry local governments from seizing an opportunity to bill taxpayers nationwide for local public services. But an exemption from liability for traffic violations is only one way to fix this issue. It’s unclear if the practice is still the best way to govern how the nation’s postal service employees behave behind the wheel.
The case for exempting postal vehicles from traffic laws rests on three premises: First, the police stops required to enforce moving violations delay mail delivery. Second, inter-governmental fines incentivize politicians at all levels to shift the economic burden of public service to taxpayers elsewhere. Third, postal delivery agencies and companies don’t control local street design but are mandated by law to serve every address under a national universal service obligation (USO).
But the Postal Service isn’t the only entity with a schedule to meet or that lacks control of local street design. Private shippers do too, and local governments aren’t shy about levying millions in fines on firms that move products just like the USPS. If the USPS were simply carrying government-subsidized letter correspondence, this wouldn’t be a big deal. The USPS and the private carriers would be in different markets. But this is not the case.
USPS carries far more than mail, with broad product categories deemed “competitive products” that legally must not be subsidized by monopoly business lines. In a small-parcel market where competition between the public postal operator and private shippers is substantial, the USPS ticket exemption can be classified—along with the agency’s monopoly on carrying letters and access to mailboxes—as a privilege reserved for the government, and only for the government. If one goal of postal policymaking is to prevent internal cross subsidies between USPS products, as it has been for decades, finding an alternative policy mechanism to accomplish the purpose of the ticket exemption would be a start.
The simplest, albeit least complete way to address the preferential treatment of USPS delivery vehicles would be to codify in postal law all cases where postal vehicles are to be exempted of fines in support of the USPS universal service obligation. As it stands, the exemption from local traffic enforcement is an informal practice, with local police ignoring USPS driver lawbreaking while local postmasters record and react to complaints about dangerous or inappropriate driving on an as-needed basis. Getting a DUI (or 3) on the job can still get a postman fired, and you won’t get a job driving a mail truck with a bad driving record, but informal and lax driving enforcement mechanisms are a recipe for worse driving. A more narrow, explicit ticket exemption limited to short-term, on-route parking for letter carriers could keep USPS drivers more alert.
This exemption could be designed to account for any case where traffic lawbreaking is necessary for a postal worker to accomplish their job. Narrowly construed, this could include allowing postal delivery workers to park in any otherwise-legal parking spot. A more expansive ticket exemption would allow postal workers to park in traffic lanes where there is no otherwise safe and legal place to park. This solution would prohibit dangerous driving behavior, including the running of red lights and stop signs, speeding and failure to yield to pedestrians or cyclists, while accommodating existing mail delivery patterns without redesigning roads.
A further expansion of the definition would include certain moving violations that lawmakers deem necessary for the expedient delivery of mail. In codifying any ticket exemption, lawmakers should avoid the temptation to exempt USPS from all automated tickets, as traffic camera video evidence is a powerful tool that could help the USPS fairly determine which of its employees are putting themselves, USPS property and others at risk while making their rounds.
Another step would be to precisely define which roadway user fees apply to USPS delivery vehicles. Urban congestion fees are a commonly proposed policy solution to ration scarce urban road space. In cities where these charges exist, postal vehicles are exempted from payment of congestion fees, but this was no given. Prior to implementation, British lawmakers seriously considered having their mail carrier pay to access its downtown cordon zone. In its early history, the USPS’ predecessor agency was regularly given exemptions from payment of tolls. With roadway user fees becoming increasingly common, any reform that seeks to address the USPS ticketing exemption would be made more complete by explicitly addressing whether and when USPS employees conducting postal business are liable for tolls and fees.
The most complete solution to USPS traffic lawbreaking would require cooperation with and investment from lower levels of government to change traffic design such that postal workers don’t need to break the law to do their jobs. USPS involvement with local traffic design is limited. It approves mailbox locations for proposed developments before they are built, but has almost no say on matters of roadway design. Nor should it—forcing USPS to be at the table every time a town changes parking rules or adds a bike lane is a recipe for federal overreach and inefficient allocation of road space, let alone a waste of limited USPS staff time.
Legislators should design a policy mechanism to shift most door-to-door deliveries to “cluster” mailboxes. This limits the number of delivery points, and allows local transportation planners to change existing roads to provide reliable, legal, safe parking for postal workers. Alternately, should policymakers seek a more complete solution, the USPS universal service obligation could be defined to condition access to universal mail service upon local governments making changes to create regular dedicated loading zones. While this may seem blunt, the changes could be phased in over a long period (25-, or even a full 40-50-year infrastructure lifecycle) that would give local governments plenty of time to universalize loading zone access. These zones need not be limited to postal vehicles and could be used to keep other delivery vehicles out of travel lanes.
Each of these policy changes would work to limit how often USPS employees break the law as part of their everyday work. Clarifying local and state authority to levy user fees on USPS for road use would help the agency plan for the future and prevent large, unexpected bills for the road services USPS relies on. What’s more, the legal battles that would come with seeking to be exempted on a project-by-project basis could grow costly as such policies proliferate. Codifying which types of parking and driving violations USPS is liable for could improve USPS driving behavior and avoid giving postal workers an extra reason to drive too quickly or recklessly. Finally, linking universal mail service to long-run road design changes would provide a more definitive, design-based solution to USPS parking problems as time passes.