Early one morning last month, one of the nearly 20,000 ice cream trucks roaming America’s streets this summer swerved into the oncoming lane of Route 123 in Northampton, New York, a small town upstate.
At the wheel of the Mr. Ding-A-Ling truck was 53-year-old Phillip Hollister, who was spotted by a police cruiser and arrested for driving while intoxicated. Hollister, police said, had driven his rig straight from the bar.
This wasn’t the first time ice cream trucks had caught the attention of the law in the area. Earlier this spring, one local Sno Kone Joe was heard shouting at Hollister, “You don’t have a chance! This is my town!” When police discovered a Sno Kone Joe truck tailgaiting a Mr. Ding-a-Ling ride, the offending driver was booked for harassment.
The shenanigans of ice cream truck drivers are not isolated to upstate New York. In April, a Kennewick, Washington driver was charged with making suggestive remarks to a teenage girl and trying to lure her into his truck. Last August, Somerset, Pennsylvania police found drug paraphernalia among the popsicles in one driver’s make-shift truck. In July 2012, another inebriated ice cream jockey took his truck for a spin in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin. And last year, the New York Post reported that a turf battle between Mister Softee trucks and rival drivers in New York City boiled over into death threats. The rap sheet for ice cream truck drivers, chronicled by Grub Street, is a long one.
So chilling is the image of the ice cream man gone rogue that Clint Howard, best known for being Ron Howard’s younger brother, starred as a cold-blooded killer in 1995’s “Ice Cream Man.” (“I scream, you scream, we all scream for the Ice Cream Man,” went the film’s tagline.)
The tawdry tales, while rare, do make members of the ice cream truck industry uneasy.
“The brand image that we want for our company is that of classic Americana. Slot us right in there with mom apple pie and baseball,” said James Conway, vice president of Mister Softee, the New Jersey-based franchise with approximately 650 trucks.
“That’s how I want my company to be perceived. That’s how I want the people who work for us to be perceived.”
State lawmakers are working to introduce legislation to make sure that no ne’re-do-well ends up behind the wheel of a jingling truck. Mister Softee, for one, conducts criminal background checks for its franchise operators and recommends them for all drivers.
“When you’re dealing with children, you can’t look too hard,” said Tim Kapucian, a Republican state senator in Idaho, who successfully introduced legislation to give ice cream truck driver employers access to a federal crime database.
Starting earlier this month, ice cream truck drivers who operate near Idaho schools are required to undergo a separate background check.
Chris Long, president of the International Association of Ice Cream Distributors and Vendors, said his industry is, in fact, already heavily regulated.
Ice cream truck operators generally need three or four licenses or permits—for each location in which the trucks operate—including a health inspection, a review of the vendor, a vending permit or business license, and sometimes a permit to operate around children.
Long said that his association supports initiatives to conduct background checks, though he calls concerns that child predators might seek out ice cream truck driver positions an “imagined fear.”
In reality, the drivers are prone to the same level of criminal activity as other people in low-paying, highly autonomous jobs, said Brent Turvey, a forensic scientist and criminal profiler.
“This kind of stuff happens in every population where there’s a lack of oversight, and where there’s a motivated offender and where there’s a potential victim population to be exploited,” said Turvey, the author of “Forensic Fraud.”
What is certain is that a driver who gets into trouble will draw unwanted media attention to a company—and an industry—that thrives on its family-friendly image.
The embarrassing arrest of an allegedly drunk Mr. Ding-a-Ling driver is only the latest threat to the ice cream man’s reputation.
“You would think anyone with common sense wouldn’t go to a bar with an ice cream truck,” says Brian Collis, the owner of Mr. Ding-A-Ling who founded the company 40 years ago.
“If it was a UPS truck, I don’t think they’d put it on the news,” Collis said. “You try to build up a business and one guy can ruin it in two minutes.”