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Tow Truck Driver is a Dangerous Job


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Tow truck drivers are out there working one of America’s most dangerous jobs




Jose Francisco Rael Jr.’s tow truck lumbered over to the side of the westbound 60 Freeway. It was rush hour, and a beat-up Chevrolet sedan was on the shoulder with a flat.


Rael paused before opening his door, peeked over his shoulder to ensure no vehicles would sideswipe him and, once out on the asphalt, turned around.


He walked backward to the front of his truck, giving him at least a tiny chance to jump from trouble.


As he crouched over asphalt, jacking up the Chevy to replace the tire, he was at his most vulnerable. Just a few feet away, cars and semi-trucks hustled by.


Rael was paying attention to all of them – even if the drivers were not paying attention to him.


“I can feel their wind,” he had said earlier when asked if he knew when trouble was too close.


Sometimes, tow truck drivers get what they call a “tap on the shoulder” – brushed by a side mirror. Many others suffer worse.


All this makes driving tow trucks, especially on freeways, one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – in a rare study focused on the trade – determined that in five years ending in 2016, 191 tow truck drivers were killed nationwide.


That worked out to 42.9 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers.


Only pilots, roofers and fishermen had higher death rates if that statistic is compared to figures of other jobs considered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2017.


For firefighters, according to the BLS, the rate was 8.9 deaths per 100,000 workers. For police, it was 12.9 deaths.


“First responders all get hit – firefighters, EMTs, Caltrans, Highway Patrol,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Kathlene New, who is based in Orange County. “It just seems like tow trucks are getting hit more frequently.”


Lawmakers have tried to help. Every state in the nation has adopted its own “Slow Down, Move Over” law, California in 2007.


It requires drivers to slow down and move over a full lane if they can do so safely when they see an emergency vehicle with flashing lights on a freeway shoulder.


“Some drivers, if they see a firetruck on the freeway, they know they have to move over,” said Patrick Sampson, the manager of motor services for the Orange County Transportation Authority, which oversees the local Freeway Service Patrol.


“But if they see a tow truck, they don’t. They don’t associate the appearance of a tow truck with safety.”


Injuries and worse

CHP Officer New supervises tow truck drivers in Orange County’s Freeway Service Patrol, a cousin of what Rael works for in Los Angles County.


These specialized tow trucker drivers, funded by the state and the county that has them, pull over for every stopped motorist they find, giving stranded drivers a tank of gas or a tow off of the freeway for free, aiming to keep overall traffic moving along.


“We haven’t lost anybody, but I had a driver get hit so hard that he never came back to work,” New said of Orange County’s fleet.


That driver was struck a few years ago while in the middle of the 5 Freeway, just south of the 91, when trying to tow a broken-down car to safety. Another vehicle slammed into the tow truck, sending him careening into the truck’s back window, head first.


He end up with just cuts and scrapes – but that was enough.


New ticks off other near-disasters: A driver who got got hit on his elbow, then narrowly missed a second strike as the car spun around. Another struck as he was stretching to grab a bucket in the lanes.


“I’ve had an operator who carefully tried to open his door, when he was sideswiped,” she said. “I’ve had an operator who got his foot run over when he was assisting a driver.”


It can get much, much worse out there.


Mark Tornow, who owns and drives for Finish Line Towing & Transport in Long Beach, knows all of this too well.


He lost an employee, in 2012.


Faapuna Manu, a 27-year-old father of three, was changing a tire on a darkened Cherry Avenue onramp of the 405 Freeway when a drunk driver in a 2005 Toyota struck him.


A recent morning, from behind the wheel of one of his trucks as he beelined to rescue a woman stranded by a flat tire in a sushi shop parking lot, Tornow recalled the crash that killed “Mac.”


“Mac was on the side of the road changing a tire at 2:28 in the morning,” Tornow said.


An EMT driving home from a holiday party plowed into the tow truck, and then the Mercedes Benz, right where Mac was kneeling down in the roadway.


“(The driver) spun out, then he hit the wall,” Tornow said. “When he woke up and saw what he did, he took some glass and tried to kill himself. … It’s dangerous out here.”


‘Like a bull’s-eye’

In February, in Sausalito north of San Francisco, an AAA tow truck driver helping a motorist stranded on the 101 Freeway was killed when a passing pickup truck lost control in the rain and slammed into the tow truck, which hit the AAA driver standing on the other side, killing him.


In June, another AAA driver was killed, this time in Castaic, as he was helping a driver on the 5 Freeway: A passing semi-truck hit the driver and fled, with the semi’s driver never found.


Erwin Mendoza Geremillo, a 47-year-old father from Castaic, was that AAA driver.


On June 29, he was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills. Tow truck drivers from around the region attended his funeral.


On the road leading to the cemetery’s central white chapel, surrounded by rolling green hills, a dozen tow trucks lined up on either side. The jumpsuit-clad drivers hopped out, gathered, then headed into the chapel.


Most did not know Mendoza. But many knew a driver like him who had been killed. All have had close calls themselves.


Not long before, Johnny Perez, a 45-year-old tow truck company owner from Baldwin Park, was aiding a stranded motorist on the 10 Freeway when a semi-truck sideswiped his tow truck, shearing off a side mirror.


“I saw the semi kind of veering,” Perez, a former EMT, said near the parked tow trucks. “I jumped out of the way. If I wouldn’t have moved, I would have been hit.”


Mendoza’s assignment that night, the overnight shift, is one many drivers dread.


“If it’s not stop-and-go traffic, it’s dangerous out there,” said Ken Wilson, an owner and driver of Panorama Towing Service in Panorama City. “For the late shift, sometimes my guys don’t even want to go out there.


“It’s like rolling the dice.”


A driver could get distracted, or misjudge the distance to the right shoulder. Or a drunk could come your way.


“We’re like a bull’s-eye,” said Bill Rauh, a 61-year-old driver with Castaic Towing, Mendoza’s employer.


He and others say drunk drivers tend to drift in the direction of lights, including the amber LEDs on their tow trucks. “They want to go toward the lights.”


‘It got close’

Tina Coffey, 47, is a rarity – a woman tow truck driver.


She and her husband, Steve, also a tow truck driver, own a towing company in Barstow and were in Hollywood Hills as well to honor Mendoza, who they didn’t know.


The couple has eight children and step children – there’s plenty to worry about if either gets injured or killed out on the road.


“It’s like we’re resigned to more deaths,” she said. “But then something like this happens, and it reminds us that we’re vulnerable.”


Despite the danger, tow truck drivers keep driving.


“Why do I still drive?” Tornow said. “Well, I like it.”


The industry is recession proof – in downturns, more people drive older cars, so tow services are needed more frequently. Some point out they like helping people.


Back on the 60 Freeway, Rael has just finished changing the Chevy’s tire. He climbed back into the cab. Even though it’s early in the day, it was already warm out, and he was drenched in sweat.


“It’s constantly on my mind,” he said of the possibility of getting hit. “Looking for someone drifting over, not paying attention. If I see it coming, just making sure I don’t get hit.”


On the passenger side of his dashboard is a copy of “Our Daily Bread” sitting next to a taped-in-place wooden crucifix.


Just a week before, a semi-truck barreling along the 605 Freeway forced Rael, on foot, to tuck into a safer spot.


“It got close, it got very close,” he said. “He was drifting a little bit, and I go, ‘Wait a minute, something’s wrong.’ “


Rael was sure the driver was looking at his cellphone.


“I saw him get back in (his lane), but he went like this.”


Rael mimicked the driver, looking up from a hand and saying, “‘Oh!’”



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With this week being Slow Down Move-Over Week, Ron and Chris provide this article of what NOT to do when it comes to tow operator safety. Not to pick a fight, but this picture is worth one-thousand words. Although staged for this story, I know the value of a photo especially in courtroom settings where a motorist may be on-trial for a tow operator's death. Playing the Devil's Advocate here, in this one, single photo, if this photo was the focus on tow operator safety, it clearly sends the message of incompetence by showing:


1)  The tower is working, standing, walking on the traffic-side 

2)  He's standing in an active lane of travel (turn lane)

3)  His back is to traffic

4)  There are no cones, flares, triangles, etc, to identify an active work-zone or indicate advanced emergency notice

5)  If that other truck is a tow truck there as a blocker truck, there's no value in its position


Tow operators tend to be their own worst enemy. It's understandable that the towing and recovery industry is a dangerous occupation, but to put one's self in harms way doesn't reflect lessons learned from more than 300-highway related fatalities through the years. While the location shown may not be a super-highway, SDMO laws aren't enforcement on city streets, but the dangers are still very much the same. This photo and its narrative may fully entertain the motoring public, but should send a different survival message to every tower reading it. I don't like tow truck driver stories where tower's tell about how they were hit by a mirror, or almost run over, especially the statements that claim, "I was nearly hit five times." What that says to me is ... "I was a dope five times where I, Me, Myself, stood where I shouldn't have been standing."


Tow operator safety begins in the mind and attitude of every tower, not with SDMO programs, laws and narrative like this one published in the Orange County Register. The culture of operator safety needs to change, especially in California where rotation towers and FSP providers are still changing tires. To that, the pictures shown in the original article depict a bleak representation of the reason operators are continually killed. Consider this rant my personal opinion, but the industry's fatality history since 1934 doesn't lie. The fatality numbers should be decreasing, not increasing in the upward count. And, bye the way, California LEADS the industry in highway and shoulder related fatalities ... go figure.     R.


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Randall C. Resch

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Randy, to add a 6 and 7 he is positioned in a restricted lane, turn only. That adds to confusion of the situation. He is also complacent, the fact that it is hot has no bearing on the fact that  metal has no mercy for meat. That car, may I add, might be a test drive, the driver has restricted view due to the signage, as well as the fact that if it is on a test drive, the operator might not be adequately rehearsed in where controls are. That was an excellent article. It should be utilized in safety briefings. 

You hit another one out of the park sir, as usual! 

Thanks for all you do!

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GM ... Thanks for your comments that increase the value of the lesson being taught here. When I teach at FSP quarterly meetings, we have discussions about all of the reasons towers get killed. Although FSP and like programs have better training, I believe that they still are told by the programs themselves to provide those services that place towers in harm's way.    R.

Randall C. Resch

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Randy, anytime you put out a message about safety you have the potential to save a person's life. You may not hear about it, because the fact that a person put another safety tool in their mental toolbox does not present when a person makes it home to their family whole. You have to take great pride in the fact that you as well as Brian as well as others have saved lives by presenting and calling attention to issues. Just how many times have people changed a habit, took a second to observe their surroundings, and been more aware, will never be known. Yourself and others should be very proud of the fact that you have changed habits and saved lives. 

And for that I am very thankful for all you and others do!

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  • 2 weeks later...

So what solution do we get when our heavy only has the tilt and extend/retract controls on the driver side? I have moved everything needed for any regular situation to the passenger side except the air hoses because there is no more room over there and the wireless light bar is hard wired into the driver side box for charging. All our heavies except mine and 2 others have working remotes so the operator can work from the passenger side.


Using another truck as a blocker is neither economical, or even possible due to call volume for our area and company.


Other than those few reasons, I try to work off the passenger side as it is usually the side out of traffic. I'm not trying to stir the pot here but maybe some of you have some suggestions.

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TTOUT ...I agree that many heavies only have controls on the traffic side and you have yours outfitted with remote controls. And, for rural, smaller, or busy companies like yours, having a blocker truck respond may be nil-to-none. My only suggestion to your added safety and your courtroom defense (if someone is struck working the shoulder) is to set cones, flares, triangles and/or signs placed to the forward of the load site as required by CFR Title 49 Section 392.22, Emergency Signals for Stopped Commercial Motor Vehicles. Good for you for stirring the pot. Your questions are proactive in nature where you have the proper awareness of roadside safety. This Saturday, I'm teaching 60x tow operators and 5x CHP officers from California's Freeway Service Patrol and you can bet that I'll be referring to this article and these photos as a topic of discussion. Thanks guys for all of your positive comments herein.   R.

Randall C. Resch

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Flares work best at night I believe as it seems people are afraid of burning their tires. Setting cones up to alternate between flares is a good auditory warning also if they are set far enough back.

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Flares are that international color of distress or caution and there should be no doubt that a lit flare means something, anything is going on. Unfortunately, flares are expensive and may tow owners don't like their cost. On a safety note, California is a burn-to-the-ground state where improper use or accidental roll-away that could start a wildfire means the unfortunate user could get a huge bill. On the other hand, reflective cones are replaceable and don't need to be recharged. Both obviously take time to set-up where the user has to face dangerous on-coming traffic. I personally like to use flares with cones as GoodMichael mentioned for the safety value they add to night-time scenes.     R.

Randall C. Resch

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