Tow truck drivers want to help with the effects of an accident, not become part of it.
But sometimes the latter can turn out to be the case at crash sites on busy highways, when chaos reigns and accidents lead to more accidents when careless drivers don’t pay attention to what’s on the road.
So far, this year alone, nine tow truck drivers have been killed at roadsides in North America, says Larry Styba, with Maple Ridge Towing.
“The word ‘safe’ is not in the towing vocabulary,” says the host of the WreckMasters towing courses, offered last week at the Justice Institute of B.C. on 256th Street in northeast Maple Ridge.
“Because nothing we do out there is safe.”
Styba, along with instructor Bruce Campbell, gave four days of courses on how to remove wrecks from the road safely and quickly. Those courses earned drivers from B.C., Alberta and Washington state certification by WreckMasters Inc., a training company.
When the radio reports big traffic accidents, “what you hear out there is us going out to clean up, hopefully in a safe environment.”
But many motorists don’t realize they have to slow down and move over when approached by tow trucks with their emergency lights on, just as they’d do for fire or police.
“That’s how the general public can help WreckMasters.”
If parked on a highway shoulder and hooking up a vehicle, a driver is on borrowed time when he’s attaching wire ropes to both sides of the vehicle and working in between the tow truck and the towed vehicle.
If an approaching driver veers off on to the shoulder, the tow truck operator could become the meat in a metal sandwich.
Styba has a plan, although it remains untested.
“If I’m hooking up a car at the side of the road and I hear these screeching tires coming toward me, it may sound weird, but I’m heading towards the centre line.
“Because that car is going to hit my tow truck and it’s going to be in the ditch.” So too will the tow truck driver, said Styba. He explains it would take longer to scramble from one side of the ditch to the other and to safety off the road than it would to go to the centre of the road where he would take his chances that other motorists would see him.
“That’s an opinion I give my students. I haven’t tested it out and I don’t want to test it out.”
WreckMasters lead instructor Bruce Campbell doesn’t agree and said that idea hasn’t been proven.
“I would want to run out of the way of danger, where ever it was.”
That’s why he stresses drivers should be prepared and minimize their time at roadside. Have equipment organized and an escape route planned once on scene, he says.
Styba said one of his trucks was sideswiped while hooking up a vehicle on Lougheed Highway and 272nd Street. The driver is OK. Lougheed Highway in the Whonnock area is one of the worst places for accidents, he notes.
“There seems to be a raceway out there.”
Dewdney Trunk Road at Laity Street and at 207th Street also are bad for crashes.
The course began Tuesday with basic instruction on how to haul a small car on to a flat deck tow truck. “We teach them to work within the limits of their equipment,” he says.
For instance, a car with all four wheels rotating needs only force that’s five per cent of its weight in order to move it. But a car with wheels locked or damaged needs the amount of force that’s two-thirds of its weight. Both could be hauled by using the 3,350-lb.-test wire rope carried by a light-duty auto wrecker.
Underestimating the equipment needed to move a wreck can have fatal consequences. A vehicle could come loose while being towed or a cable could snap during retrieval.
The last two days of the course dealt with advanced wreck retrieval. How to right an overturned school bus, while shutting down only one lane of traffic, how to get a big rig back on to its wheels, within about 90 minutes, using the “Christmas wrap” belt system.
A more advanced course teaches use of air bags to move overturned cement trucks or oil tankers.
Cleaning up accident scenes, towing illegally parked vehicles, or hauling to impound lots the vehicles of drunk drivers can get stressful, Styba admits.
Unlike ambulance, police, firefighters and tow truck drivers arrive at an accident, the tow truck drivers are the only private-sector entity and have to ensure they don’t make mistakes that cost money.
Campbell, from Banff, Alta., says B.C. is ahead of other provinces and states in training tow truck drivers. Firefighters train weekly he points out. Tow truck drivers train once a year in a role that’s vital to the transportation industry. A gridlocked freeway can cost the economy up to a million dollars an hour, he points out.
“If all the towers quit tomorrow, we would be under gridlock within a day.”