Jim Elliot/Salmon Arm Observer Ben’s Towing owner Ben Honcoop says all roadside workers face extreme risk from distracted or aggressive drivers.

One too many close calls: Tow truck driver speaks out

Tow truck crews fed up with dangers caused by irresponsible drivers.

The vehicle was so close that Ben Honcoop could feel the rush of wind hit his coveralls as the car sped by.

Owner of Ben’s Towing in Salmon Arm and a veteran of the industry for more than 45 years, Honcoop was working at the scene of an accident on Jan. 19 across from the entrance to Haney House on Highway 97B.

Two vehicles were down the bank, a FedEx van and a pickup truck, and he arrived with his large tow truck to pull them both up.

Police were on scene, one police car with flashing lights at the bottom of the hill and the other down from Paws for Play Kennels, directing traffic. Signs to notify drivers had been placed on the road.

Traffic was reduced to single lane to accommodate the work of the crew and their trucks on the side of the road.

Suddenly a northbound vehicle drove right past the officer, despite being motioned to stop.

“The officer on the lower side saw the vehicle coming and he screamed at me,” says Honcoop.

It was nearly upon him, and zoomed by – a small grey car.

It was going so fast, no one was able to get a proper description or a licence plate number.

“It was lucky I didn’t get hit,” Honcoop says. “This type of thing goes on a lot more than you realize… My guys have had close misses, lots of them.

“It’s a huge issue. People don’t slow down. People don’t adhere to laws anymore. Everybody seems to be in such a hurry. ‘Well you’re in my way, I’ve got to get around you.’”

He says all roadside workers experience it, from paramedics to police to highways and construction crews.

The public is just not watching what they’re doing, Honcoop says.

“Put their own family out on the road and then see what they think.”

Last summer a flagger his company had hired to flag one night between Sicamous and Salmon Arm was nearly hit.

“She just about got ran over. She had to jump in the ditch.”

Honcoop remembers the closest fatality in the area involving a tow truck. One of the drivers at Vernon Towing was killed several year ago near Predator Ridge despite having all the lights flashing on his tow truck.

Ken McLachlan, owner of Vernon Towing, remembers that day far too well.

“December 13th, 2006.”

Ernie Semkiw was about 10 kilometres south of Vernon, assisting with a broken-down vehicle driven by a BCAA member, when he was struck by the mirror of a passing moving van and killed.

Prior to that, about 15 years earlier, a driver of a Kelowna tow truck was killed while loading a disabled vehicle onto his truck when a drunk driver rear-ended the vehicle, pinning him between it and his tow truck.

Related link: Flag person’s death shines light on dangers

McLachlan lists other crashes in the Lower Mainland in the past five years that have left tow truck drivers critically injured. He also points to Belle Bourroughs, the flagger struck on Highway 6 in November last year who died in December.

“These things go on with some degree of frequency.”

When Ernie Semkiw was killed, McLachlan vowed to Ernie’s widow Lynn that he was going to spearhead a movement to bring ‘Slow down, move over’ legislation to B.C. It already existed in Alberta and other places across Canada, but not B.C.

And so began a letter-writing campaign, many meetings with politicians, paramedics, police, firefighters, lobbying of BCAA and ICBC to participate, and more. He says BCAA was tremendous in using whatever leverage and pull it had to further the cause.

In April 2009, he was contacted by the attorney general who told him “the squeaky wheel had got the grease.” The ‘Slow down, move over’ provisions became law in B.C. in June that year.

The law applies for emergency and maintenance vehicles which have flashing red, blue or amber lights. If travelling in an 80 km/h or more zone where such vehicles are at work, drivers must slow to 70 km/h.

If the speed limit is less than 80, drivers must slow to 40 km/h. Failing to slow down and move over garners a $173 ticket and three penalty points.

Although McLachlan knows the law has undoubtedly saved lives, he wants to make the roads safer. Following a death, Saskatchewan has added blue flashing lights to tow trucks, to get drivers’ attention. McLachlan would like to see that change here.

But the biggest challenge, he says, is enforcement.

“The resources of police, they’re taxed to the limit.”

Most times police can’t stay anymore if there’s an accident, he says, “so we have to hire a flagging crew to extricate a vehicle out of the ditch that might only take 10 minutes.”

He also would like to see limits on drivers who rent trucks. In parts of the U.S., he says, you can’t rent a vehicle any bigger than what you already drive.

The person driving the moving van that struck Ernie Semkiw was inexperienced.

“It’s been a haunting thing over the last 12 years. It never goes away because those of us who were here that day, we commemorate it every year on the 13th. We hoist a pint or two to remember the day and remember the man.”


@SalmonArm
marthawickett@saobserver.net

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Ernie Semkiw

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