When you're driving down the road and you pass an ambulance or police car, you know the rules. You slow down, you pull into the other lane, and you stay alert as you travel on by. What do you do when you see a tow truck working on the side of the road, though? If you aren't sure, don't feel bad. A lot of people don't know.
The Trouble With Being A Secondary Responder
Tow truck drivers work closely with police departments and emergency rescue services. When there's a vehicle accident, as soon as any injured parties are assisted and important information is documented, a tow truck driver is called to remove the vehicle(s) from the side of the road along with any debris that may have fallen off of the vehicles. It's the tow truck driver's job to physically remove the mess of metal that poses risks to other vehicles on the road.
When you're approaching an ambulance or police car on the road, you're alerted well in advance of their presence by their first responder lights. The vision of brightly colored, flashing, red or blue lights is a universal symbol that there's trouble going on up ahead, and you should proceed with caution.
As secondary responders, though, tow truck drivers are not always granted the same privileges as first responders. Many states prohibit tow truck drivers from employing red or blue lights as warning signs for motorists. Instead, they're restricted to using amber-colored lights -- the same lights that are used by utility vehicles while traveling down the road, placed atop barrels at construction sites, and even donning golf carts and some souped-up streetcars.
Amber lights are so common that motorists are desensitized to them, leaving tow truck drivers unable to send out the urgent warning signals that, according to statistics, they desperately need.
A Look At The Startling Statistics
How dangerous is operating a tow truck? Last year alone, 52 tow truck drivers lost their lives while responding to roadside crashes in the United States. That's one incident a week, not taking into account the number of accidents that didn't result in fatalities. In this same period of time, there were 19 deaths resulting from roadside assistance for police and emergency rescue workers combined.
Because of these shocking numbers, those who work in the tow truck industry refer to any area in-between a disabled vehicle and the tow truck there to assist it "the dead zone".
Moves Made Toward Safer Practices
Many state legislature committees have become aware of the dangers tow truck drivers face on a daily basis and have begun enacting laws to protect them. Some have passed driver removal laws which permit those able to do so to move their vehicle to the side of the road after an accident.
Other states have made it mandatory that motorists slow to a safe speed and allow plenty of distance between their vehicle and any tow truck that's actively assisting another vehicle on the road.
Finally, some states are working towards passing laws that permit tow truck drivers to use the same color warning lights as rescue vehicles do when responding to and assisting a vehicle.
Your Role In All This
In most states, a tow truck is indeed considered an emergency vehicle, regardless of the color of its lights. When you pass a tow truck driver who is towing another vehicle on the road, understand that they are in a vulnerable position.
- If you're traveling on a road with at least 2 lanes running in the same direction, put your turn signal on and move into a lane farther away from the tow truck as soon as it is safe to do so.
- If you're traveling on a road that only has one lane for each direction, turn your hazard lights on and slow your vehicle's speed down significantly until you've passed the tow truck.
- If you see a tow truck behind you while you're driving and there are flashing lights of any color on top of the vehicle, they are working on a crash scene in which time is of the essence. Safely pull your vehicle over to the side of the road and allow them to pass.
Driving a tow truck is far more dangerous of a profession than most people realize. The next time you pass one that's responding to an emergency, keep the road a little bit safer for everyone by knowing the correct procedure to follow.