Tow operators risk life in line of duty
When you think of a first responder, who comes to mind?
Police, firefighters and paramedics usually are at the top of the list, but when a motorist plows through a building or icy winter roads lead drivers into ditches, and when traffic comes to a stand-still, tow crews are on-scene.
Vehicle towing is a job critical to traffic safety. Tow operators clear roads of broken-down cars and recover wrecked vehicles involved in accidents.
Towing careers also come with responsibilities like any job, but the risks that come with the field often overlap with the dangers some first responders face.
Casey Oleson, a tow operator with Olson Towing, said he always has two thoughts on his mind when he's working: "the weather and people not moving over ... you always have to have your head on a swivel."
Tow truck drivers like Oleson operate on interstate and highway roads almost every day. Cars often travel at speeds as high as 80 mph in South Dakota.
Oleson understands the danger, but added that "to actually get out and see it and feel it - feel how fast them cars are whipping past you - it's ... terrifying. I want to go home, too."
Just like other careers focused on public safety, a tow operator's safety isn't always guaranteed.
According to Oleson, the most dangerous part of his job is towing vehicles off of interstate roads. He said he often observes 18-wheelers and trucks change lanes at the last second - or, sometimes, not changing at all.
A KOTA Territory news crew recorded video of eastbound traffic on Interstate 90. The highest consecutive count for vehicles not moving over was five - three trucks, a cement truck and a school bus.
According to South Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Tyrel Minor, South Dakota's "Move Over Law" states that motorists must move to the lane furthest from any vehicle with flashing lights. They must also slow down 20 mph below the posted speed limit, and there are real consequences when this law is ignored.
Tow operator Dale Jones was killed in the line of duty after he was hit by an out-of-control motorist in early January.
"You get a little bit angry because it could have been prevented if people would abide by the law," Oleson said.
Minor added that following the law gives motorists some leeway in emergency situations.
"With highway speeds, there's seconds of a reaction time," Minor said. "Always slow down, because slowing down gives you more reaction time. It allows your vehicle to maneuver in ways that it wouldn't have at higher speeds."
Every job has its risks, but Oleson said there is no excuse for hitting tow operators when drivers make their presence known by traveling in huge trucks, flashing emergency lights, and wearing high-vis vests.
Minor wished for a golden rule among drivers: "I always wish that people would treat others on the side of the road the same way they would want to be treated when they're on the side of the road."