SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — On average, 60 tow truck drivers die while working each year in the U.S., said Jeffrey Godwin of the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Godwin oversees the museum’s Wall of the Fallen, which honors those who died on the job, and the Survivor Fund, which helps the family of those who died. The Wall of the Fallen has 450 names. The two programs have criteria so not all deaths are included and not all family members apply to have their member on the list.
“It’s a pretty dangerous occupation,” Godwin said.
So dangerous that the towing industry reported a death rate more than 15 times the rate of U.S. private industry, according to a National Institute of Safety And Health (NIOSH) report on the tow truck industry released in February 2019. The study covered the years 2011-2016.
Maria Padilla keeps track of tow truck operations death. Padilla is the assistant editor of Tow Times, a 36-year-old industry magazine based in Florida.
“For all of 2019, we had 47 such deaths,” Padilla said. She recorded 30 in 2018.
“It’s very, very sad,” Padilla said.
Both Padilla and Godwin added the death of Watertown tow truck operator Dale Jones to the 2020 list. Jones was killed while operating a tow truck on Saturday near Watertown.
Jones’ death was the second one on Padilla’s list as of Jan. 6.
When Godwin talks about the Wall of the Fallen and the tow truck industry, he uses words that inspire a sense of community.
“We are a tightknit group of people. Absolutely,” Godwin said. “We are like other groups of people, like First Responders. It’s the type of occupation where everybody knows the danger of it.”
But they still do it despite the danger.
Often, it’s a lane of traffic, amber lights and a few cones that separate a tow truck operator from moving vehicles.
“They are risking their lives to provide a service,” Godwin said.
Most tow truck deaths were motor vehicle incidents. Most of those involved workers on the side of the road being struck by passing vehicles, according to the NIOSH study.
Advocates of the tow truck industry, including state associations, have tried to address the safety of tow truck operations by including their service in state laws often called “move over” laws.
South Dakota’s move over law requires a “stop required upon approaching stopped emergency vehicle using red signals–Requirements for approaching vehicles using amber or yellow signals.”
And if on an interstate, drivers traveling in the same direction must merge into the farthest lane from the tow truck or on a two-lane highway, the approaching vehicle must reduce speed to less than 20 miles below the posted speed or 5 miles per hour if the speed limit is 20.
A violation of this section is a Class 2 misdemeanor.
Depending on the roadway, drivers need to move over or slow down when they see a tow truck working, said Tony Mangan of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety. “Drivers need always be watching,” Mangan said.
While Padilla and Godwin said the move over laws in all 50 states are an improvement over the past, the danger of the tow truck industry can be overlooked and almost ignored.
The NIOSH study acknowledged the need for more attention on the tow truck industry and its dangers. The study said “nonfatal injuries and deaths in the motor vehicle towing industry have been largely overlooked (until its study). The findings from this study underscore the need for additional research and tailored prevention efforts.”
Godwin said while some states have increased fines for violating move over laws that may not be the answer to prevent deaths.
His museum group, state tow truck associations, the AAA and other organizations are cooperating to educate the public on the need to pay attention to and respect the work of the tow truck industry. More deaths need to be prevented, Godwin said.
Godwin sighed when he said usually learns within 12 hours of each new tow truck death.
For more about the International Towing museum, see the website.