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'It’s terrifying out there,’ says tow truck operator

Lakeland tow truck operators push for change after a tow truck and a tow truck operator were struck by passing vehicles while attending highway calls in the region – both occurred within the last two weeks.

LAKELAND – In the evening of Jan. 7, a Bonnyville tow truck operator was struck while attending a roadside call along Highway 28 near the intersection of Range Road 482.  

Just after 7 p.m., emergency crews had been dispatched to the scene where the operator was found stable, conscious and without life-threatening injuries, S/Sgt. Sarah Parke confirmed. However, the operator was transported to the Bonnyville hospital for a medical assessment.  

At the time of the single-vehicle collision with the pedestrian, the tow truck operator was removing a vehicle from the ditch with his emergency lights on, said Parke. Both vehicles were facing eastbound on the highway when the incident occurred. 

A 57-year-old man from Calgary has been charged with careless driving and driving at an unreasonable speed. 

“The driver of the offending vehicle was issued two summons to compel him to court,” said Parke. "While both these offences carry a minimum specified penalty (fine), both charges were issued to the driver by way of summons, which will require a mandatory court appearance on Feb. 22, and if found guilty it will be the judge that specifies any fine associated with the sentence."

Parke noted that severe weather and icy road conditions were considered factors in the incident. 

Three vehicles collide with St. Paul tow truck 

Just four days earlier on Jan. 3 at around 12:30 p.m., a serious collision occurred involving a St. Paul tow truck and three other vehicles on Highway 28 between Range Road 114 and 115, near Ashmont. 

Responding emergency crews had to cut apart two vehicles to extricate at least one occupant from a vehicle, according to Al Stewart, one of the owners of St. Paul Towing. 

The tow truck operators reported the first vehicle that had hit the tow truck from behind appeared to have lost control, but seemed to be travelling at highway speed, Stewart told Lakeland This Week.  The tow operator saw this happening and was able to get out of the way.

Two other vehicles travelling the same direction had also collided from the rear following the initial crash.  

Occurring midday and with the truck's emergency lights on, Stewart said, “It’s not a lighting issue, it’s 100 per cent an issue of people having to slow down.” 

In the last two weeks, there have been three collisions involving tow trucks on Highway 28. The third incident happened near Smoky Lake where a vehicle being assisted by a tow truck was struck by a passing vehicle. 

RCMP Cpl. Shawn Morgan, the media relations officer for the eastern Alberta district, told Lakeland This Week at the time of the incident, "Weather and road conditions were exceptionally poor - whiteout conditions and icy road surfaces," were noted by responding members.

"Traffic was redirected for approximately three hours while emergency crews investigated and cleared the highway," he wrote.

No charges have been laid in the incident and none are anticipated, stated Morgan.

The dangers experienced by operators providing roadside assistance are so high that Stewart approached the local RCMP to suggest an operation to catch drivers that fly by responding tow trucks, similar to operations that focus on catching drivers speeding past stopped school buses. 

In Alberta, motorists must reduce their speed to 60 km/hr when passing tow trucks that are stopped with their lights flashing, similar to any other emergency vehicle.  

Drivers are also expected to reduce their speed and leave a large buffer between them and emergency personnel and equipment at the scene. It is also important to watch for movement of personnel around the scene. 

Too many factors 

For tow truck drivers operating in the Lakeland area and across the province, the factors leading to collisions between passing vehicles and tow trucks or their operators are numerous.  

The solutions they have been pleading for are simple – the addition of blue lights to their vehicles and enforcement of traffic laws.  

Whether it is lack of attention or awareness, poor road conditions or poor visibility, nothing brings attention back to the road like flashing blue lights, Joel Dechaine told Lakeland This Week. Dechaine is a Bonnyville-area tow truck operator for CSN JD Collison. 

Alberta tow trucks, which are considered emergency vehicles, have no additional visible designation other than their decals and flashing amber lights.  

Dechaine said drivers don’t react to yellow lights the way they should, and he believes it’s because amber lights are shared with too many non-emergency vehicles. 

“What's happening is people are so used to seeing amber light and not slowing down. ‘Oh it’s a snowplow, oh it’s a wide load, so I don’t have to slow down’ – but meanwhile, it's a tow truck and by the time, especially in the conditions we've had in the last little bit, you don't have time to slow down and then you slide into the tow truck.” 

To reduce risk and increase the public’s responsiveness to tow trucks, operators and owners are working together to implement changes that will improve worker safety on the job. 

“We're trying to lobby the government to make some changes in regard to the lights that we're allowed to have on our vehicle,” Dechaine said. “A few other places... have lobbied the government and successfully been allowed to put blue lights on their tow truck.” 

In 2017, Saskatchewan became the first province to allow for a two-colour - amber and blue - lighting combination to be installed on tow trucks. The province implemented the change to legislation following the death of operator who was killed in a roadside collision during a blizzard.  

“It's really quite a dangerous job,” reiterated Dechaine.  

“Frankly, I believe the best option is having blue light on vehicles. Nothing makes people pay attention like the fear of the police," he said. “As soon as you see cops, you look at your speedometer and see if you're speeding... That's just a natural reaction that everybody does because of those blue lights. I strongly believe that blue lights would be the biggest opportunity to invoke change in how people interact with emergency vehicles on the highway.” 

Although many operators support the idea, Stewart is not one of them.  

“I know they've been pushing for these blue lights, but people are just going to go flying by with your blue lights,” he said, adding, the lights will wind up becoming an extra expense. 

Stewart believes the best ways to curb speeding and dangerous driving around responding tow trucks is to increase enforcement, fines and public awareness. 

The lack of attention and action has led to ongoing collisions and near misses with roadside assistance vehicles, Dechaine agreed. From experience, he says most drivers are unlikely to slow down to an appropriate speed when passing work trucks and are less likely to face consequences for not doing so. 

The unfortunate reality of the job is that every day an operator starts a shift they are reminded of the risks and vulnerability they face while attending a call where vehicles pass at high speeds – often with poor road conditions, said Dechaine. 

“I'll guarantee that there's some wives and husbands out there that are constantly thinking as to whether their husbands and wives are going to be coming home safe,” he reflected.  

Even though the three serious incidents involving tow trucks occurred in such a short time frame and are seen as “a bit of anomaly,” Dechaine said that "It should not be ignored.” 

“Bad things happen when bad things happen and you can’t predict them, but when two things happen in a short period of time, obviously there is an issue with regards to how people are paying attention to emergency vehicles on the highway.” 

Throughout North America, these incidents happen far too regularly, he says, “These tow truck drivers are up 24/7, 365 days a year busting their butts to keep roads safe, and they definitely don't get the respect that they deserve for doing that job.” 

Reflecting back on the day Stewart got the call that two of his drivers had been in a serious collision, he said, “It’s terrifying out there – when I got that call, I could have gotten sick right there. When your guys are out their working and get hurt just because people are not paying attention.”

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