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By AAA of Western and Central New York
The big picture: Helping stranded motorists on the side of the road should not be one of America's most lethal jobs, but it is. On average, two emergency responders, including tow workers, are struck and killed every month by a driver who fails to obey the law by moving over to an adjacent lane and allowing the roadside rescuers the space to operate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roadside crashes are notably deadly for tow workers. Government data shows that tow operators are killed at a rate of almost 43 deaths per 100,000 workers, compared to just three for all other industries.
"We examined this safety challenge because these crashes are avoidable if drivers slow down and move over to allow roadside workers the space to carry out their duties safely," said Dr. David Yang, president and executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "We must help motorists see and react appropriately whenever an emergency responder is on the side of the road."
The problem: While all 50 states have “Move Over laws,” motorist awareness and compliance are inconsistent, with 71% of Americans unaware of their state’s laws, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). These laws require drivers to slow down or change lanes whenever first responders such as police, EMS, fire and tow trucks are on the roadside. Also, not all states have laws requiring drivers to change lanes or slow down when approaching a broken-down vehicle.
New York and national data: New York state law requires motorists to slow down and move over for first responders, tow trucks and road maintenance workers, though efforts are underway to expand the law to be more inclusive.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analyzed data from NHTSA and found that 1,703 people were killed outside a disabled vehicle in the U.S. from 2016 through 2020. California ranks first with 271 deaths, followed by Texas with 268, and Florida with 112. New York ranks 17th among states with 37 such deaths from 2016 through 2020. The District of Columbia and Vermont were the only areas to report zero deaths in that period. With highway speeds often over 65 mph, motorists may find it difficult to spot and react to incident response personnel, including tow truck drivers, police and emergency responders. So, what should be done?
AAA's research: The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety conducted two field studies on busy roads to determine the effectiveness of various countermeasures to protect roadside workers. The foundation also surveyed tow workers, emergency responders, and road maintenance workers on their experiences with roadside jobs. Of those surveyed, 60% had experienced a near miss while working at the roadside, while an astonishing 15% had survived being hit by a passing vehicle.
What works: The foundation studied several countermeasures, and an electronic vehicle-mounted variable message sign (VMS) was very effective. With VMS activated, drivers changed lanes and slowed down more than when the VMS was not operating. The odds of a vehicle moving over were 95% higher when the VMS was used. Passenger vehicles were more responsive to the VMS than trucks or buses, although both were more likely to move over when VMS was active than when not.
Other countermeasures also have their merits. The foundation examined cones, flares and emergency flashing light patterns. The researchers found these led to significant lane shifts by drivers, but were less effective at reducing speeds or increasing the distance to the passing vehicles that did not change lanes. It should be noted that, due to wildfire concerns, flares may be restricted in some areas.
Next steps: The results from the field studies suggest that using VMS, nighttime light patterns, cones or flares can positively impact the behaviors of passing motorists under most circumstances. AAA strongly recommends service vehicles or fleets utilize these features, to protect these roadside heroes.
"AAA is using this research to promote the adoption of lifesaving countermeasures to protect tow workers and first responders. AAA is sharing these findings with other impacted industries and traffic safety advocates," said Cliff Ruud, AAA's managing director of automotive solutions. "At the same time, AAA will continue educating drivers about the need to obey move-over laws because doing so saves lives."
About AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
Established in 1947 by AAA, the Foundation for Traffic Safety is a nonprofit, publicly funded 501(c)(3) charitable research and educational organization. The AAA Foundation's mission is to prevent traffic deaths and injuries by researching their causes and by educating the public about strategies to prevent crashes and reduce injuries when they do occur. This research informs the development of educational materials for drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and other road users.
Started in 1902 by automotive enthusiasts who wanted to chart a path for better roads in America and advocate for safe mobility, AAA has transformed into one of North America's largest membership organizations. Today, AAA provides roadside assistance, travel, discounts, financial and insurance services to enhance the life journey of over 63 million members across North America, including over 56 million in the United States. To learn more about all AAA has to offer, or to become a member, visit AAA.com.
As upstate New York’s largest member services organization, AAA Western and Central New York provides more than 862,000 members with travel, insurance, financial and automotive-related services. Since its founding in 1900, AAA has been a leading advocate for the safety and security of all travelers. Visit AAA at www.AAA.com.