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Re: Emergency Lights or Four-Way Flashers?

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For years, federal highway programs and highway patrol guidelines have required towers you use four-way flashers for tow trucks parked on the side of a highway's shoulder. It's always been understood that flashing lights initiates the Lookie Lou Factor.


But, along comes, Slow-Down Move-Over laws. Within the body of most state law's and narratives, there's typical wording that says, "a stationary tow truck that is displaying flashing amber warning lights", is parked in-position and require motorists to slow-down move-over. What does flashing warning lights mean to you? Note: the wording does NOT say four-ways flashers.


Based on wording alone, what item of lighting equipment or the tow truck's on-board system defines that of, "flashing amber warning lights"? It's my opinion that four-way flashers provide the, "old school mentality", to suggest a motorist's vehicle is temporarily parked and they may need assistance. But, based on the message of bringing advanced emergency warning to approaching traffic, an emergency strobe or rotator light is, "new device technology", that provides warning capable of being seen as far as a mile away? Accordingly, I believe tow trucks parked on the emergency shoulder should have overhead emergency strobes or flashers activated. I don't make the rules, what do ya' think?


If you're a contract tower for your state's highway patrol, what is your requirement? Should tow operators make use of overhead emergency lights for ALL shoulder related events?And, please provide any comments regarding your opinions. Hey Brian ... chime in here.     Thanks.     R.

Randall C. Resch

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I have mixed personal feelings about this as I personally subscribe to the less is more theory with warning lights. I believe the more lights you display the more distracting you could be to passing motorists. This is the same reason I despise the laws requiring display of flashing lights while in-tow that several states still have on the books. Over use of amber warning lights desensitizes the public to their presence thereby reducing their effectiveness.


That said, I do believe that overhead warning lights should be activated whenever a tow truck or service vehicle is stationary on the shoulder of the highway and in very limited situations where they are otherwise a hazard to traffic. As for which devices on modern tow trucks should be used, I call for minimal strobe or rotating lights, mounted high and wide on the vehicle with controls setup in a manner that allows the operator to select the number and direction of the lighting used based upon each scene's unique conditions. Example, if the truck is on a limited access highway then only the rear facing strobes need be activated so as not to cause a distraction to the oncoming traffic across the median but on a two lane road then both directions need be activated to provide adequate warning. Same with the number of lamps used, daytime conditions may call for more strobes activated to increase visibility but at night the outside edge strobes are more than effective enough.


Each state has their own laws or regulations regarding warning light use, what is permitted and even the styles that may be used. While doing the research last year for my American Towman article on tow truck warning lights I noticed a trend where many states have outdated regulations still on the book that called for exactly what you describe above, simple amber flashing lights or simply the vehicle's 4-way flashers not any special purpose device. Many states call for these lights to be mounted on a horizontal plane with a minimum spacing between them, using the same regulations as 4-way or "emergency/hazard" flashers on typical motor vehicles. Very few states specifically permitted (none specifically prohibited) oscillating/rotating or strobe effect lights although in many states these styles of lights have become commonly accepted to use in place of the old fashioned basic flashing warning lights.


One of my desires, and personal quests in conjunction with the TRAA, is to develop and implement a national emergency vehicle lighting standard revision that includes towing and road service vehicles. Currently there are standards for fire apparatus, ambulances and police vehicle which is why these vehicles are universally recognizable from a distance regardless of the part of the country one is in, however being towing is private sector and our equipment is not typically funded by a grant program (where the current standards are enforced) we do not have any such uniformity among industry members. Sure, some of these tow trucks look cool with hundreds of flashing and strobe lights but are they safe or effective? Absolutely not! If there were uniform color and mounting standards, as well as uniform usage rules, I strongly believe that warning lights would be much more effective as a part of the advance warning system for temporary traffic control.

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Thanks Brian for a well-written and descriptive response. But, are four-way flashers the same, "effective emergency lighting", necessary in providing advanced emergency warning? I believe a vehicle's four-way flashers don't provide any, yawn, safety factor other than a visual notation that says, "Here I am".


I believe there's truck that by using over-head emergency lights, yes, towers have a level of responsibility for using emergency lighting, and as Brian mention, "too much lighting causes confusion." Even though the Moth to the Flame has NEVER been proved scientifically, any tow truck with circus lighting will be blamed on the tower when someone else strikes an operator or their truck. 


But, for wreckers and carriers parked on highway shoulders, if your tow truck's lights aren't on and your tow truck or tow operator is struck, injured or killed, the offending motorist who fails to SDMO, they use the excuse that they didn't see the tow truck because the tow truck didn't have its emergency lights on. This goes for all tow trucks, FSP and highway providers.


Not having the tow truck's emergency lights on does not qualify and initiate the responsibility of a motorist to slow-down move-over. I guess it comes down to what the exact wording is in your state's vehicle code law, not what your highway protocol recommends or states? Brian mentions, "Over use of amber warning lights desensitizes the public to their presence thereby reducing their effectiveness", Slow-Down Move-Over laws are written to provide an element of safety to tow operations. Where a tow truck is parked stationary and with lights-on, sensitivities aren't the issue ... following the law is.


As the problem of distracted and DUI driving heads to the future, the incidents of pedestrian and tow truck strikes will continue. Will your insurance provider deny your claim for coverage when emergency lighting isn't employed?     R.

Randall C. Resch

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Again you bring up great points Randy. Of course a tower must comply with the letter of the law when displaying emergency lighting otherwise there could be a way out of responsibility for a driver that fails to move over and causes a crash. The difficult part, as you are well aware, is laws and regulations can often be contradictory. One rule may require displaying flashing lights to be covered under the move over law but another may require only using four-way flashers while stationary.


It can become a no win situation, and as I often say compliance with regulation does not always equal safety. When I call for "less is more" I am not saying a tower, or other responder, should not use emergency lighting as required by their state code, rather I am saying it is often best to use the minimal amount of emergency lighting that is required by such codes. NFPA even suggests as much in their emergency lighting standards (forgive me for not citing the exact standard my reference materials are not with me), suggesting that as other apparatus arrive on scene the level of light from each apparatus can be reduced to avoid over saturation of light and the resulting confusion to motorists.


This is why I am calling for a national standard to be applied across all 50 states regarding color and deployment of emergency lighting. Same as we have the MUTCD to guide traffic control in all states, so a work zone or street sign looks the same no matter where in the US a driver is, so should emergency lighting and the colors used. Motorists will not respond to a hazard unless the perceive a need to respond. Let's stop confusing them with different colors and patterns of lighting so that they can begin to recognize the need to respond in order to avoid striking our workers.

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As being a past trucker hauling oversized loads and doing towing i will say that the people who run oversized loads and don't take their time to remove the signs and flags should be fined it's against the law in Virginia for doing that but they don't enforce it and then you have everyone else from mailman to vdot truks who leaves the strobes on for no reason it's a huge problem for people to know if it's a real emergency or just a mistake and they don't pay any attention to it like they should. 

Keep on truckin

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