On Saturday Dec. 14, 2019, less than a month after starting his job as a AAA tow truck operator, Dustin McClary went to assist a AAA member with a flat tire on the side of I-70 east near Columbus. His first time solo on the freeway quickly took a turn for the worse.
“I was changing the driver-side rear tire on the left hand side of the road, and a lot of people were getting over, which I thought was pretty cool,” said McClary. “Then, I saw one car that wasn’t getting over. They just kept swaying, a little bit more and more to the left. As soon as I got to scoot back a little bit after taking two lug nuts off, he side-swiped the car, pushed the car into me a little bit, then nose-dived into the tow truck and did a spinout on I-70 east, blocking two lanes.”
Luckily, everyone walked away from the incident, but it’s a stark reminder of the dangers tow truck drivers face every day while working nobly to assist motorists in need.
The towing industry is 15 times deadlier than all other private industries combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An average of 23 tow operators are killed at the roadside every year, which equates to an average of one every other week.
If you ask any tow truck operator, you’d be hard-pressed to find one that hasn’t had a close call while working on the side of the freeway.
“I’ve had a semi that if I would have turned around I would have touched it,” said Giovanni Patete, AAA tow truck operator. “It was probably going 80 miles per hour.”
“I had to roll under a pickup truck one time,” said Paul Hickman, AAA tow truck operator.
All 50 states recognize the danger tow truck operators and other roadside workers face. That’s why they’ve all implemented Slow Down, Move Over laws. Ohio’s law requires drivers to move over, or slow down if they can’t safely move over, whenever they see a stationary vehicle on the side of the road with flashing lights.
Fewer than 30% of Americans actually know about these move over laws, and tow truck operators say others seem to be in a hurry or distracted.
“Every roadside, whether it be on the highway or just the regular streets, it seems people are just in too much of a hurry to get places, and it’s what’s getting us killed and getting us hurt,” said Hickman.
“I see a lot of drivers on their phone, or driving with their knees and eating,” said McClary.
Tow truck operators and other roadside workers do what they can to protect themselves and the motorists they are assisting.
“We can light up our area a little more to catch their eye, between the amber light and our white work light,” said Patete. “If I see a big ball of light I’m going to slow down, just in case.”
“I always set up a perimeter first with my cones,” said Hickman. “I feel just a little bit safer having that perimeter, because at least if one of my cones gets struck, that’s that first alert for me or the driver that hit it.”
“I just keep my head on a swivel and wear reflective gear,” said McClary.
Law enforcement has also made an effort to enforce Ohio’s law. The Ohio State Highway Patrol has issued more than 23,000 citations for violations of Ohio’s move over law during the past five years. Yet, tow truck operators agree it’s going to take more than strong laws and enforcement to change driver behavior.
“I shouldn’t have to every four seconds look over my shoulder to make sure there aren’t headlights coming in my direction,” said Hickman. “And I shouldn’t have to jump when I hear that rumble strip. It boils down to education. People don’t know. We need to spread the word.”
Tow truck operators work together to spread the word through online communities and to look out for each other on the roadside.
“There’s a whole community,” said Patete. “Other people may see different companies, and think they’re competing. Well, yeah, they may be competing, but if you’re on the side of the road, that person’s not your competition, that’s your family too.”
That support and comradery, along with the desire to help others, is what drives these roadside heroes to keep going.
“To me this isn’t really a job, it’s a lifestyle,” said Patete. “You learn that you’re not alone. There’s other people out there doing the same job in the same situation and you grow as a community.”
“I love what I do,” said Hickman. “This is my career. I bleed driving a tow truck. It’s that knight in shining armor. That smile when I roll up. Because, they feel a little bit safer when I get there.”
Even still, families of tow truck operators worry every day that their loved one won’t make it home alive. When McClary’s truck was struck, he immediately thought of his family.
“As soon as it happened, as soon as the supervisor got out there, I called my girlfriend just so I could talk to the kids and hear their voices,” said McClary. “That was the only thing going through my head at the time.”
He admits he was nervous the next time he was called to assist a member on the freeway, but says it won’t stop him from assisting motorists in need.
“I try not to think about it,” said McClary. “The only thing I can think about the incident is just how fast it happened.”
It’s true, lives can be changed in the blink of an eye. That’s why AAA urges motorists to remain alert and slow down or move over for all roadside workers.
“As long as you’re being aware and you see me and I see you, and I notice you’re trying to slow down, that’s fine,” said Patete. “But don’t come flying past me, because I’m just trying to do my job.”