If you’ve ever had to pull over on an Alberta highway, you know how nerve-wracking it can be. Even if you’re as far on the shoulder as possible, even if your hazard lights are on, other cars and trucks may still be whipping past mere metres from where you stand. In other words, you’re vulnerable.
So too is the tow truck operator who responds to your call for roadside assistance.
“I was hooking up a vehicle that had stopped on Macleod Trail in the right-hand lane,” recalls Neal Joad, an AMA tow truck operator in Calgary. “In the next lane, one driver slowed down but the guy behind didn’t, and so they collided right beside where I’d just been working.”
That incident, and many others like it, have inspired CAA clubs to name May 14 Slow Down, Move Over Day—to raise awareness of provincial laws that are meant to protect roadside emergency responders (including tow operators), and to foster a broader conversation surrounding roadside safety.
In Alberta, motorists must slow to 60 kilometres per hour (or less if the posted speed limit is lower than 60) if they’re in the lane directly next to a parked tow truck with its lights flashing. Failure to do so can result in a speeding fine that’s double the normal rate, plus demerit points.
TOWARD INCREASED SAFETY
But Alberta’s laws don’t go far enough, according to Jeff Kasbrick, vice-president of government and stakeholder relations at AMA. “In every other province that has slow down, move over legislation, it applies to all traffic lanes in the same direction of travel,” he says. “We’re calling for Alberta to apply its law in a way that’s consistent with the rest of the country.”
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Another step toward increased safety? Allowing tow trucks to add blue lights to their existing array. Currently in Alberta, tow trucks’ flashing beacon must use amber lights. But research has shown that blue lights are more easily seen in low-light and bad weather, which is so often when tow trucks are out in force. Saskatchewan began allowing blue lights in 2017, following the death of a tow truck operator in a multi-vehicle crash outside of Esterhazy.
Joad also points out that amber lights are simply too common on Alberta roadways. “Whether it’s garbage trucks, hydro vehicles, city landscaping trucks or even LED road signs, they all have that colour of lights,” he says. “It’s like if you drive by the same billboard every day. You see it so often that after a while you stop paying attention.”
While the exact number of collisions involving tow trucks is not known, data from CAA National indicate that each year in North America, dozens of tow operators are killed while doing their jobs. Anecdotal evidence indicates there are also thousands of near-misses annually.
“If I were to talk to all our tow truck operators after every shift, there would surely be at least one story about somebody driving too fast and too close to the scene of a roadside rescue,” says David Crowhurst, an AMA fleet supervisor in Calgary. “Cars literally come within inches of our trucks, drivers and the people they’re trying to help.”
Across Canada, there are more than 7,500 tow truck operators employed by or contracted to provincial CAA clubs. Each one ongoing receives training, plus equipment such as tall reflective pylons and high-visibility clothing, to ensure that they—and the members they’re helping—stay as safe as possible at the roadside. Crowhurst adds that for high-risk calls, AMA goes the extra mile by sending a “safety blocker unit” to slow down drivers and create a larger area in which the tow operator can work.
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Of course, roadside responders are not only at risk at times of low visibility and inclement weather. Data suggests that as motorists head out on summer road trips and vacations, some of our safe-driving practices go on holiday as well, with serious collisions particularly prevalent over long weekends.
Joad thinks distracted driving plays a significant role. “Because the road conditions are generally better, people seem to be less concerned about losing control of their cars,” he says. “But I’ve been working at the side of the road and seen drivers speed past while fully texting on their phone. That’s scary—people being distracted and not recognizing just how fast they’re going.
“You just have to stand at the roadside to see how unsafe it is. With cars and trucks passing at 80, 90, 100 kilometres an hour, you’d be shocked by the speed.