To be a tow truck driver is to trust in the basic decency and intelligence of your fellow man. Around here, that's getting harder and harder to do.
Three times in the past nine months, tow truck operators have been killed while working on roads in Tampa Bay. Statistically speaking, that's an outrageous number. Realistically, tow truck drivers say it isn't necessarily shocking.
By its very nature, the job is high-risk. You're often working on the side of a road with little room to spare. When passing cars do not slow down or move over, the risk is increased. When passing motorists are eating or on the phone, the risk is increased. When they've been drinking, the risk is insane.
"The majority of the public seems to think they can multitask while they're driving,'' said Marson Johnson of Elvis Towing and Transport in St. Petersburg. "A lot of them have a hard time just driving safely, let alone doing anything above and beyond when they're behind the wheel.''
Talk to enough tow truck drivers and you get a chilling list of close calls and near misses.
Like those times when speeding cars come so close to your back that you feel your jacket flying up in the draft. Or the distinctive sound of an oncoming car driving over rumble strips in the emergency lane you're working in. Or that time you made the split-second decision to leap on the hood of a customer's car because, out of the corner of your eye, you see an approaching vehicle weaving into your path.
Based on figures from the International Towing & Recovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn., about 60 tow truck drivers are killed every year. That means some driver is run down on some nondescript road, on average, a little more than once a week in America.
Yes, accidents happen every day. Drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists are killed. Sometimes it's caused by road conditions, many times it's caused by human error.
But there's a fundamental difference with these roadside fatalities:
Tow trucks typically have flashing lights and their work gives them the same type of legal protection as first responders. In other words, passing drivers have a legal, moral and commonsense obligation to exercise greater care when passing a tow truck at work on the side of the road.
And yet some of us rarely do.
"It's a little hard to do your job safely and efficiently when you're scared out of your mind and you're hoping you don't take one wrong step,'' said Marcus Powell of Upman's Wrecker Services. "There's just a complete disregard for the law. Heck, people don't even move over for law enforcement anymore.''
In case you weren't aware, this has been the law in Florida since 2002:
When passing emergency vehicles stopped on the road — which would include police, fire, medical and tow trucks — drivers are required to move over one lane or, if that's not possible, to slow down to 20 mph below the speed limit.
That's your legal responsibility.
Your personal responsibility is having the basic decency to recognize that people working on the side of the road are worth more than the 10 seconds you might lose by slowing down or moving over.
"It's life-threatening,'' said Ginger Darling of Nationwide Towing in Clearwater. "It's as simple as that.''