The Hidden Hazards of Tow Trucks

When motorists get into accidents on the roadway, they rely on tow truck drivers to help them out. However, sometimes the tow truck drivers cause accidents or other problems. If a tow truck accident has caused harm to you or a loved one, contact an experienced truck accident injury attorney to learn about your rights. Read on for more information about the hidden hazards of tow trucks.

The Safety Hazards of Tow Trucks

A 29-year-old New Jersey tow truck driver jailed after prosecutors argued that he presented a danger to the community. The driver had been arrested following a crash in Lafayette in which his truck crossed the yellow line into oncoming traffic and struck another vehicle. The driver of that vehicle died at the scene, and the passenger was hospitalized before succumbing to his injuries weeks later. The tow truck driver was charged with assault by auto, two counts of drug possession, and two counts of death by auto. He claimed that the accident was caused by defective brakes.

Because they’re used for transporting other vehicles, tow trucks are very large and heavy, often weighing three to four times more than the average passenger car.

Like other types of large, commercial trucks, the tow truck’s massive size accounts for these dangers, among others:

  • Blind spots: Nearly every vehicle has blind spots—that is, areas along the sides, front, and rear of the vehicle that the driver cannot see in their rear or side view mirrors. However, the blind spots in large trucks are significant and pose a risk to a smaller vehicle traveling near the truck. This is especially true if the smaller vehicle lingers in the blind spot and the truck driver forgets that it is there.
  • More distance needed for stopping: The heavier the vehicle, the more distance is required for it to come to a safe stop. Tow trucks can weigh 10,000 pounds or more, meaning that they require more distance for stopping than the average personal car or truck. This required distance increases on icy or wet roads.
  • Wide turns: Larger trucks also tend to make wide turns, which cause them to swing out into other travel lanes when taking sharp turns such as those on many of our city streets. Motorists who are unaware of this may find their vehicle squeezed between the truck and the curb, or be struck or crushed beneath the tow truck while it is turning.

Beyond these common hazards presented by large trucks, a tow truck presents other hazards unique to the design of the truck and what it is intended to do. According to Police Mag, roll-away hazards exist for those working around tow trucks that “can lead to great bodily injury or death to persons” standing or working in the roll-away zone. The roll-away zone is located directly behind the tow truck. Most tow trucks use an electric or hydraulic winch to hoist the vehicle being towed onto the flatbed of the truck as well as to remove towed vehicles from the truck.

A roll-away accident can occur due to mishaps such as:

  • A tow truck driver’s failure to place a piece of wood or other object in the area in which they anticipate the vehicle will stop to keep the vehicle from rolling.
  • A tow truck driver’s failure to confirm, after pulling out excess cable to hook the winch up to the towed vehicle, that the winch is relocked.
  • A tow truck driver’s failure to lock the winch when the towed vehicle is on the carrier’s tilted deck.
  • The towed vehicle disengages from the free-spool, disconnect, or cable separation during winch recovery.

Beyond the physical dangers that tow trucks present, there are other risks involved with tow trucks and their drivers.

Recently, a woman who had been in the accident hired a towing service to haul her car to a Volvo dealership. However, the company did not take her car to the dealership, and she spent four days trying to find out where, in fact, her car was taken. The tow truck’s company address turned out to be an apartment complex, and her car was not there. It later turned up in an auto body shop in another city. When the woman’s insurance company called to try and get the car back, the bill for the towing service kept increasing until it reached $2,900.

The former Communications Director for the National Insurance Crime Bureau described the incident as “highway robbery,” but said situations like this are not at all uncommon. Individuals with tow trucks, working as independent contractors, listen to police scanners to learn where the accidents are and then show up on site. Motorists, who have just been in an accident and are unsure as to what to do, allow the tow truck drivers to load up their vehicles, often believing that the police department or emergency dispatcher called the tow for them.

In a span of six months, one insurance company paid over $150,000 in bills to predatory towers. The former director noted that, if city police departments would actually handle calling a tow for drivers involved in accidents while on the scene filling out a report, instead of leaving people to make their own towing arrangements, it would cut down tremendously on the problem.

Motorists are urged to carefully check the credentials of the tow truck driver who shows up at the accident scene. Find out who called them. If they tell you that the police called them, ask the officer on the scene. Many insurance providers will help their insured by calling an approved tow truck. It is worth checking to see if this service is included in your policy.

Dangers to Tow Truck Drivers

Driving a tow truck is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, as drivers have to work on the side of the road outside of their trucks to load or unload towed vehicles. According to the National Safety Council, the on-the-job fatality risk is 15 times greater for tow truck drivers than it is for employees in other industries. Sixty-four percent of these fatalities are caused by incidents with other motor vehicles, while contact with equipment and objects is the second-leading cause of fatality in the industry, accounting for 17 percent.

Some dangers facing tow truck drivers include:

  • Distracted drivers. A distracted driver is a driver who is not fully watching the road, with both hands on the wheel, and with their mind on the task of driving. Distractions are a major cause of accidents for all types of drivers. Common driving distractions include texting and other cell phone use, visiting with other passengers in the vehicle, eating or drinking, or external distractions such as other vehicles, previous accidents, and billboards. Distractions can be deadly to tow truck drivers, who risk being hit while standing on the side of the road if a motorist is not paying attention.
  • Reckless drivers. Drivers who choose to speed, pass other vehicles where prohibited, or tailgate increase the risk that they will cause an accident. For a tow truck driver who is already on the scene of an accident, having someone driving by too fast or attempting reckless maneuvers in the area where they are working is an additional concern.
  • Dangerous places. Tow truck drivers make their living by helping out stranded motorists. Often, these motorists are stranded in unsafe areas and the tow truck driver can become the victim of a violent act simply because it is late at night and they are working in a dangerous area. Tow truck drivers who are in the business of repossessing vehicles are also at risk of violent acts at the hands of the individuals whose vehicle they’re trying to repo.
  • Maneuvering a loaded truck through heavy traffic. The difference between driving an unloaded tow truck and a loaded one is like night and day. Drivers who are not properly trained on the proper technique of maneuvering a massive truck through traffic are at risk of making an error that could cost a life.
  • Fatigue. The job of operating a tow truck is labor intensive, and drivers often work long hours. When tow truck drivers work while fatigued, they put themselves and others at risk of a traffic accident due to drowsy driving or making a costly error when loading because they are tired.

Roadside accidents involving motorists hitting stationary emergency vehicles were such a problem in the U.S. that nearly all states have enacted a “Move Over Law,” including New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. In New York, tow trucks are specifically mentioned in the law. Move over laws require that motorists coming up on a parked stationary emergency vehicle must either move over to an adjacent travel lane to give more space while passing the scene, or to slow down below the speed limit to ensure the safety of emergency workers who are working outside of their vehicles on the roadside.

Tips to Stay Safe Around Tow Trucks

While it is impossible to prevent all types of accidents, there are several things that tow truck drivers and other motorists can do to avoid ending up in a deadly situation on the side of the road.

Some tips include:

For Tow Truck Drivers

  • Make sure you assess all of the potentially hazardous situations in the area where you will be working before getting out of your vehicle. Pay close attention to merging lanes or intersections.
  • Deploy your warning lights when stopped, if you have them. Otherwise, use pylons to warn the drivers of approaching vehicles that you are working near the roadway. Also wear highly reflective, bright clothing that will help other drivers see you more easily.
  • Before loading or unloading a vehicle onto your truck, be sure to clear the roll-away zone. Have pedestrians and other emergency workers stand as far from the back of your truck as possible to avoid being struck during the loading and unloading process.
  • Double check your work. Make sure your winch is locked and check that all cables are fastened properly to the vehicle before driving away.

For Other Motorists

  • Obey traffic laws, including your state’s move over law. If tow trucks aren’t mentioned in your state’s move over law, move over to an adjacent lane or drop below the speed limit while passing the scene anyway.
  • Avoid talking to the tow truck driver while they are loading or unloading your vehicle. Your conversation may distract the tow truck driver and can cause them to miss a step or make a dangerous error.
  • Stay out of the roll-away zone, which is the area directly behind the tow truck. If there is a winch malfunction or operator error during the loading or unloading process, you could be injured or even killed when the weight of the vehicle being towed comes down on you or rolls into you.
  • Never tailgate a tow truck. If the vehicle breaks loose during transport, you run the risk of being struck by it. Remember, too, that tow trucks are large vehicles with large blind spots and they make wide turns. Driving too closely behind one can result in an accident. Give them space.

Accident with a Tow Truck? Ask a Truck Accident Lawyer for Help

Whether you were injured in an accident caused by a tow truck driver or you are a tow truck driver who was injured due to someone else’s negligent or reckless actions, you could pursue compensation for the expenses your injuries have caused as well as the impact that your injury has had on your life. Contact a truck accident lawyer from Jacoby & Meyers to help you understand your legal options. Most will evaluate your case for free and handle your case on a contingency fee basis, in which you will pay your lawyer nothing—your lawyer will only get paid a percentage of any compensation you recover.

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