Tow trucks often appear on the scene at an accident, but it’s a bitter irony when a tow truck is involved in a collision. Accidents involving automobiles and tow trucks are infrequent, but when they happen, the consequences can prove enormous. Tow trucks are large vehicles that significantly outweigh the typical automobile and can be even more dangerous when you add in the wild card of the towed vehicle, which can break free and cause even more havoc. With these stakes, it’s worth looking at the role of tow trucks and their unique legal issues in an accident.
Tow Truck Basics
The majority of tow trucks you encounter on Indiana’s streets and highways fall into four basic categories.
Four decades ago, hook-and-chain tow trucks were the tool of choice for towing automobiles. These vehicles boil down to a pickup truck with a short boom, a chain, and a hook for attaching bumpers or frames. Towing with a hook-and-chain truck can do substantial damage to modern vehicles, and these wreckers now specialize in hauling worn-out autos to recyclers.
The drawbacks of the hook-and-chain method spurred the development of wheel-lift tow trucks. These trucks use a hydraulic yoke to lift the drive wheels of a vehicle. This approach lessens the risk of scratches and frame damage for the towed auto. Wheel-lift trucks are a relatively compact solution for towing two-wheel-drive vehicles.
Flatbed Tow Trucks
Though referred to as tow trucks, flatbeds carry the vehicles they transport. These trucks can pivot the rear end of the flatbed to pavement level, creating a ramp. Drivable vehicles can move on board under power, or the tow truck can pull an impaired auto up the ramp with a cable. With the vehicle loaded and secured, the driver levels the flatbed for the transport run. Flatbed tow trucks offer a high degree of protection for the transported vehicle. The downsides for these trucks are their length, a high center of mass when loaded and the complex nature of correctly securing the load before transport.
Integrated Tow Trucks
Integrated tow trucks sport an extra axle and the capability to pull a large recreational vehicle. These versatile trucks take their name from the tow arm integrated into their chassis frames. Some integrated trucks come equipped with video systems that permit a quick hookup without the driver leaving the cabin, which is a boon for safety.
Tow Truck Drivers
The men and women who drive tow trucks may be employees of a trucking company or work as independent contractors. In addition to towing tasks, many tow truck drivers perform basic roadside assistance tasks such as changing tires or starting battery-drained vehicles. Self-employed drivers often perform towing as a side business. Either way, most tow truck drivers in Indiana need a commercial driver’s license with a class designation aligned with their truck type. Turnover is high in tow truck driving positions, with a majority of drivers changing employers within two years.
Paperwork and Unpredictability
Long-haul truckers have a degree of predictability to their work routine. The same is true for local delivery drivers. Tow truck drivers rarely have a clear idea of how their workday will go as they sip their morning coffee, and overnight towing calls are typical. The tow truck driver who shows up at a nighttime accident may well have been in bed a short time earlier.
Even the most straightforward towing run requires drivers to fill out significant paperwork. These factors can combine to make tow truck driving a stressful line of work. Stress inevitably impairs judgment, and that impairment can lead to accidents.
Tow Truck Accident Factors
Numerous human and mechanical shortcomings may contribute to an accident involving a tow truck.
As with all commercial truck operators, tow truck drivers must comply with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations. The recently updated FMCSA rules limit drivers to 14 on-duty hours in any 24 hour period. If drivers split their on-duty hours, their 10 off-duty hours must include one stretch lasting at least seven consecutive hours. With densely populated metropolitan areas in wintertime, it is easy for tow-truck drivers to meet — and exceed — the 14-hour barrier. Inclement weather can also make attachment operations an arduous task. Overextended drivers and icy conditions are a recipe for accidents.
Paralleling the push to pile on driver hours is a strong temptation for towing companies to scrimp on maintenance in busy periods. As with any commercial truck, tow trucks require scheduled service for their engines, brakes, tires and lights. Beyond these issues, tow truck operators must maintain hydraulic systems, pneumatics, booms, tie-down cables and attachment points.
The best maintenance means little when the transported vehicle is not properly secured. This issue is particularly critical with flatbed tow trucks. Correctly securing a vehicle to the bed is a more intricate process than most laypersons would believe. Skipping a step due to fatigue or time pressure may result in a transported vehicle breaking free with catastrophic results.
Obstructed Tail Lights
A longtime issue with wheel-lift tow trucks involves obstructed tail lights. While many wheel-lift trucks have a set of high-positioned brake lights, motorists who follow these trucks instead fixate on the towed vehicle. The result may be a collision with the towed automobile. Technology is solving this problem. More and more towing companies now place a set of wireless turn indicators and brake lights at the rear of towed vehicles, thus providing trailing motorists these signals in the expected position.
If a motorist makes an improper lane change, a tow truck driver’s split-second evasive move could trigger a collision with an adjacent vehicle. Even worse, a swerve followed by an over-correction can send a flatbed tow truck into a tragic roll. Beyond the carnage, these accidents make apportioning liability a tremendous challenge.
Towing businesses have a financial incentive to move as many vehicles as possible inside their drivers’ 14-hour FMCSA windows. An additional lure comes from accident response time. Local law enforcement often makes the call for towing services, and companies that build a reputation for quick arrivals will earn this business. If the tow truck drivers behave sensibly en route to jobs, they perform a valuable public service. When these drivers exceed the speed limit, they hike the risk of accidents and magnify the severity of collisions.
Tow Truck Accident Action Plan
If you are involved in an accident with a tow truck, you should follow the same sensible steps you would take for any vehicle altercation. If there are injuries, call 911 immediately and follow the operator’s instructions. If you or one of your passengers can safely photograph the accident scene, quickly do so. Tow truck operators bring unique obligations to their line of work, and your photographs may go a long way towards obtaining the compensation you deserve.
Tow Truck Accident Attorneys
The thicket of liability issues surrounding a tow truck accident build a compelling case for seeking professional legal advice. Hensley Legal Group, PC brings two decades of experience to the mission of helping people injured in truck accidents. Our focus is you: If you don’t get paid, neither do we. If you have suffered an injury in a vehicle accident, we invite you to contact us today.