PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Letter carriers around New England are being forced to walk more of their routes and make fewer stops because of repeated accidents in which parked mail trucks rolled away.
By May, mail carriers will also be issued blocks that they will have to put under their wheels every time they get out of their vehicles.
"A lot of carriers were not following the procedures, and we were getting rollaways and runaways," said Christine Dugas, a Postal Service spokeswoman in Providence.
Under long-standing postal regulations, when mail carriers get out of their trucks to deliver letters, they must turn off the ignition, put the vehicle in park, turn the wheels toward the curb and put on the parking brake.
But New England has seen an increase in incidents in which trucks rolled away or drove off.
The southeastern New England district, which includes Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, has had seven incidents in the last 18 months, Dugas said. No one was injured, but that was up from three incidents the year before and none at all in the preceding four years, she said Friday.
As a result, over the last year, the Postal Service in New England has been reducing the number of stops on the theory that the fewer times a vehicle has to be parked, the less likely the carrier will violate procedure.
"We have not had a fatality," Dugas said, "but we don't want to take that chance."
Letter carriers will also have to walk longer sections of their routes.
The Postal Service distinguishes between rollaways and runaways. Runaways are when the mail carrier leaves the truck running and it drives off. Rollaways happen when the carrier turns off the ignition but forgets to activate the parking brake.
In one recent incident, Dugas said, a tree stopped a rolling truck before it could plow into a room where children were playing. Another truck hit a house.
"We've even had a situation where the carrier will lean out of the truck to put a letter in the box, fall out of the vehicle because they weren't wearing their seat belt, and have their vehicle run away," Dugas said.
A spokesman for the Postal Service in Washington, Bob Anderson, said the decision to change routes is left up to local districts, and he did not know of others across the country that are taking similar action.
However, safety posters picturing a desperate letter carrier chasing a postal truck hurtling in reverse toward a child playing on a lawn have been distributed to every post office across the country.
Don Dahlstrom, a letter carrier for 27 years, said most postal workers follow the rules and probably don't need the chocks.
"They do the paying, they do the saying. But it's sad that it has to get as far as this," he said. He said he has never had a truck roll away on him.
Discipline for violating the parking procedures can range from a written reprimand to suspension. Punishment for having a vehicle run away varies depending on the carrier's disciplinary record.
A carrier whose vehicle ran away in Providence in 1998 was transferred to a job that did not require her to drive. Recently, a South Dartmouth, Mass., letter carrier was suspended for seven days for driving when he was supposed to be walking and for leaving the keys in the ignition when he left the vehicle. He has filed a grievance.
Dugas said other carriers have complained that the policy is a physical hardship, and their cases are being examined.
Ron Gajdowski, a 28-year carrier with a route in Providence's jewelry district, said he keeps his keys on a chain attached to his belt, keeping him tethered to the vehicle until the keys are out of the ignition.
"This is the best way," Gajdowski said. "Unless this truck is in park, you can't get out of the truck because they won't come out."