Roadside Safety & The First Responder You've Probably Forgotten

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the event that led to the enactment of the first Move Over law in the United States, aimed at helping keep our first responders safe.

On Jan. 28, 1994, a passing vehicle struck paramedic James Garcia on the side of a two-lane highway near Lexington, S.C., while he was responding to a distress call. Not only did Garcia suffer permanent impairment to his left arm and leg, but he was also considered at fault simply because he was doing his job.

At the time of the accident, neither South Carolina nor any other state offered comprehensive protections to emergency workers either on the side of the road or in it. In nearly all cases, vehicles had the right of way. However, in the last two and a half decades, thanks to the efforts of James and many others, Move Over laws have been implemented in all 50 states. These laws require drivers to move over a lane or slow down when passing active, but stopped or parked, emergency or service vehicles.

However, even today, these types of accidents involving first responders still occur all too often – and one type of first responder is being put at particular risk: the tow operator.

Approximately 30 percent of the public remains unaware of Move Over laws, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In addition, these laws can be difficult to enforce and many drivers consider them as mere suggestion rather than rule. In Tennessee, for instance, nearly 2,300 people in 2018 were ticketed for not moving over – an increase of almost 50 percent from two years ago.  

Further, even when drivers are aware of the need to slow down when safe to do so and switch lanes, there is a misconception that Move Over applies only to roadside police, EMTs, or firefighters, and they therefore often fail to move over for tow operators, even though laws in all 50 states include these professionals.

As a result, the job of a tow operator is one of the most dangerous – and overlooked – in the world, sometimes arriving to accidents or roadside incidents even before law enforcement, medics, or firefighters and usually staying well after others have left to clean up. (Police officers often leave accidents scenes before tow truck drivers have cleared the disabled vehicle, leaving them potentially unprotected and vulnerable to traffic.)

More Light Must Be Shed on Dangers Drivers Face
Every day, tow operators face aggressive drivers, hazards on the side of the road, and the risks of operating heavy equipment. NIOSH recently published results from a study based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII) and Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) for 2011-2016. SOII data showed there were 6,400 nonfatal injuries and illnesses in the motor vehicle towing industry that resulted in missed workdays during that period, representing a rate for the industry of 204 per 10,000 full-time employees (FTEs), which was more than double the rate of 98 per 10,000 FTEs for all U.S. private industries. The leading causes of injuries were contact with objects and equipment, followed by overexertion and bodily reaction from bending, kneeling, crawling, or reaching. CFOI data for the period showed 191 deaths in the motor vehicle towing industry, which translates to an annual average fatality rate of nearly 43 deaths per 100,000 workers, more than 15 times the rate of 2.8 deaths per 100,000 workers for all U.S. private industries combined.

Because of this, the towing industry nationwide is suffering. Tow operators both large and small are facing significant driver availability and retention headwinds as alternative and less dangerous opportunities, such as shared-ride services or parcel delivery, attract employees. This high-risk profession is also increasingly difficult to insure, and several prominent insurers have dropped their tow liability coverage options, causing costs to skyrocket.

As tow businesses struggle, the potential reverberation across other industries – from automotive companies to insurance providers, motor clubs to municipalities – could be great, especially considering the need for this profession isn't slowing. Vehicle miles traveled – a significant force driving roadside and tow incident rates – are increasing. Today, cars are owned longer and driven farther. And, near into the future, autonomous vehicle technology will increase car use, with cars driven potentially 20 times more than they are today. Further, as automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) continue eliminating spare tires in new car models to reduce vehicle weight and increase fuel efficiency, more simple roadside incidents – like flat tire changes – will become tow events.

More light must be shed on this issue, and there are best practices that can be followed to help.

First, all drivers should familiarize themselves with the Move Over law in their state, the specifics of which may vary. Second, drivers need to abide by the law and move over when able. Third, it's important to spread the word and speak up when a friend, family member, or taxi driver doesn't comply.

Additionally, the Smith System's Smith5Keys can help encourage safer driving behavior.

For industries that rely heavily on tow services, consider the implications that tow industry challenges may have your business and partnerships, such as rising costs. Evaluate your existing partnerships and consider whether these issues are being addressed.

Like all first responders, tow operators set aside their own safety to help those in need. By spreading awareness of the dangers of this profession and the importance of following Move Over laws, we can help to better ensure the safety of our tow operators.

Fortunately, several states have recently acted and renewed efforts around Move Over. In the last few months, laws in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, for example, have been evaluated for expansion (to now include all vehicles with flashing lights) or updated to deliver harsher punishments for violators.

For more information, you can visit the Tow and Recovery Museum's website. This organization welcomes contributions to help support families of the tow operators who have lost their lives in the line of service.


George Horvat, chief operating officer, is responsible for Agero's network and contact center functions, allowing the company to more effectively deliver a comprehensive, streamlined, and differentiated roadside experience for drivers in their moments of need.

Posted on Feb 22, 2019

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