The post office in Sharpsburg, GA has an unfortunate twist on the U.S. Postal Service’s unofficial motto—it’s neither snow nor rain nor gloom of rear-end collision that stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. The postal rural carriers at the Sharpsburg post office have become easy targets for distracted drivers, following accidents this summer that have sent three people to the hospital and prompted one of their own to resign.
Anne Kerlin is a 19-year veteran and one of the six Sharpsburg carriers who has been involved in accidents over the past few years. She empathized with the most recent victims, including Jennifer Doolittle, who resigned last month. “I can understand why she quit,” Kerlin said. “I was terrified after it happened to me. You’re just waiting to get hit again. We’re just sitting ducks.” Doolittle was rear-ended in her Honda Odyssey by a 17-year-old driving a Ford F-150 near East Coweta High School.
The accident occurred near the end of the school day on Highway 154 as Doolittle was delivering mail to the last mailbox on her route. The impact spun her minivan around before it came to a stop in a ditch. The 35-year-old mother suffered head and neck trauma, minor cuts and bruising, and is undergoing physical therapy as part of her recovery. “I’m just thankful I didn’t have my hand in the mailbox, because if I had, I wouldn’t have an arm,” she said. Doolittle quit the job last month. She said lingering anxiety over the June accident, ongoing physical limitations and dealing with the red tape involved with workers’ compensation claims prompted her to resign. She had been a substitute carrier for about six years at the Sharpsburg and Senoia post offices. “That accident was enough to scare me,” Doolittle said. “I hate that road. I hate to drive.” Gina Powers was rear-ended last month by a welding company’s commercial truck on state Highway 16. Her Honda CR-V traveled 34 feet and flipped over on its top before it came to a stop, according to the police report. Powers, 42, also suffered injuries, including a broken nose.
She currently works limited hours and duties, answering the phone at the post office. The man who hit Powers was taken by helicopter ambulance to Atlanta Medical for his injuries. His truck sideswiped a tree and then hit another tree head-on before it came to a final stop between some other trees, according to a police report. Cynthia Olmstead, a supervisor at the post office, said the most disturbing similarities about the recent accidents is that both of the drivers at fault appeared to not have noticed the postal carriers were stopped before impact — although their carriers’ cars were clearly marked, emergency lights were flashing and they were on straight-aways, stretches of highway with unlimited visibility. “We want to make the public aware that we’re out there. Both of those accidents were at no fault to our carriers,” she said, adding that carriers diligently exercise safety precautions, including trying to get off the road whenever they can. She said some of the problems with the state routes in this eastern section of the county is that they are two lanes with no or limited shoulders or emergency lanes where the carriers can safely get their vehicles off the road. Even then, Dianne Lewis, a 20-year veteran and the post office’s safety captain, is advising carriers that it’s better to get pulled out of a ditch by a tow truck, than to get carted away by an ambulance.
Carol Walls, a rural carrier, fears local motorists are becoming so hurried and distracted that they’re not only endangering mail carriers, but also other service people out on the roads trying to do their jobs. “It’s not just carriers, but it’s meter readers, garbage men, school bus drivers and so on,” she said. Olmstead said their concerns are only aggravated by one of growth’s byproducts—more distracted drivers on the roads.
“We find people are on their cell phones or text messaging, and when someone is hitting you in the rear end at 65 miles per hour, it’s a concern,” she said. Betsy Tomlinson, a substitute carrier who’s driven all 15 of Sharpsburg’s routes, described the trend and the increasing “near misses” more bluntly. “They’re rude. The drivers are just rude,” she said. She described impatient drivers who follow too closely, and then slam on their brakes at the last minute or “sling out” into oncoming traffic to pass the carriers instead of waiting until there are safer sections to pass.
While postal carriers pull off the road when they’re able, the problem with Hwys. 154 and 16 is that there aren’t a lot of places where the carriers can pull over. “They’ll get right up on our rear end,” Tomlinson said. “I’ve had people behind me, follow me and watch me box the mail, stop after stop, and after they pass, they honk their horn at me. They get mad because I’m blocking their way, and I’m doing my job. Everybody out there is trying to do their job.” She watched one driver avoid a near miss by swerving into someone’s front yard. He drove across the resident’s driveway, through the yard and pulled back onto the highway without stopping. Tomlinson, who moved to Georgia from Ohio, said she thinks many of Sharpsburg’s newer residents may just be unaccustomed to seeing rural mail carriers. She said transplants may be more accustomed to seeing the traditional large white Jeeps or LLVs (a government acronym for long-life vehicle) that city carriers operate.
While rural postal carriers use their own cars, which range from large trucks to compacts, many of their vehicles have been converted for mail delivery. Steering wheels have been added to the passenger side of the vehicle, passenger seats have been removed and trays have been added to hold the mail. The conversion makes for quicker and easier access to the curbside mailboxes. The rural carriers’ cars are clearly marked with official postal carrier signage, and they operate with emergency lights flashing while they are on the route.
Some of the carriers, who don’t opt for the full conversion, also “drive in the middle” to quicken and thereby reduce the length of their stops at the mail boxes. Driving in the middle involves straddling a makeshift seat over the car’s center console while the left leg operates the gas and brake pedals and the left arm steers. The right leg is positioned on the floorboard of the passenger side for balance. Driving in the middle allows the carrier to use his right arm to reach the mailbox quicker without having to lean over the passenger seat. More importantly for Lewis, the driving-in-the-middle mode allows carriers to keep their eyes on the rear-view mirror while they’re stopped at a mail box. If they sense an approaching vehicle is not going to stop, they can pull over.
The rural postal carriers of the U.S. Post Office in Sharpsburg created this list of safety tips for homeowners and motorists to help them in their quest for safer mail delivery:
* Mark your mailbox on both sides.
* Clear any trees and tall bushes away from the box so it can be seen by carriers, garbage pickup, emergency vehicles and school bus drivers.
* Maintain the box on a sturdy post so that the door opens and closes easily. A door or lid that has come off the box and is subsequently stored inside the box makes it difficult for mail delivery, especially on heavy mail days such as on Mondays and the day after a holiday.
* When decorating for the holidays, special occasions or yard sales, ensure that the lid can be opened. If the lid won’t stay closed, repair it with something other than a rubber band.
* Leave mail at the front of the box instead of the rear, especially on busy highways and roads.
* If you receive a lot of mail, magazines, catalogs and small catalogs, install a box large enough to hold it all.
* Pick up your mail daily. Put your mail on hold or have a family member or neighbor pick up your mail if you can’t pick it up daily.
* Keep your mailbox free of road obstacles such as parked cars, garbage cans, children’s toys or bikes. Ask your lawn service and garbage pickup service to allow room for carriers to approach the box or driveway.
* Teach your children to stay away from the mailbox when they see the mail carrier coming. The children should approach the box only after the carrier leaves the mail in the box and moves on to the next receptacle.
* Teach your teenagers to watch out for rural mail carriers, especially on Saturdays, during summer break and school vacations and holidays.
* Watch for carriers and slow down, especially on two-lane roads and highways. Allow some distance between you and the vehicle in front of you.
* Stay off cell phones while you’re driving. Pull over in a safe place to take or make your call.
We’re are out there delivering between 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. “We only ask that you be alert and watch out for us. We are your friends and neighbors and relatives out there doing our jobs.”