Just before a massive funeral procession of tow truck drivers Wednesday, veteran driver Joe Weeks of Bristol made a plea to the public: “When you see yellow lights, slow down and move over. We have families too.”
More than 50 of his colleagues shared that message as they talked Wednesday morning before the funeral of tow driver Christopher Russell, who was hit and killed by a car two weeks ago as he tried to help a stranded motorist in North Haven.
Russell, 38, was the second Connecticut tow driver killed on the roadside in the past three years, and their colleagues from across the state gathered Wednesday to show support — and ask the public to slow down for the flashing yellow lights of tow trucks.
“Our lives matter just as much as police, fire, EMS, DOT — for anybody out on the road, it’s hard. Drivers just don’t pay attention. The lights on the truck are there for a reason,” said Scott Nicoll, a driver with Merola Motors of North Haven.
Wednesday’s procession included light-duty wreckers, flatbeds and massive four-axle “heavies” that can pull broken-down garbage trucks or trailers, all representing dozens of tow companies. Drivers from Milford, Farmington, Hartford, Manchester, New Haven, Waterbury, Ellington, Wallingford and elsewhere turned out to show support and help the Russell family.
From the back of one truck, drivers were buying memorial hats and t-shirts marked R.I.P. Chris Russell, as as a fundraiser for his survivors.
“In the towing family we come from all walks of life. It doesn’t matter what color you are, doesn’t matter what company you work for. We’re one big huge family, we all stick together,” Nicoll said.
Drivers gathered in a large parking lot down the road from Russell’s funeral in Wethersfield, and many lamented that it had been only a little more than two years since Corey Iodice, 58, was run down and killed by a motorist.
Iodice, a third-generation tow driver who worked for his family’s towing company, had been loading a disabled car onto his flatbed along the Merritt Parkway when he was hit by a car. State police said the car was doing 76 to 90 mph; the driver, Dean Robert of Weston, was charged with drunken driving, second-degree manslaughter and reckless driving. Robert is being sentenced Thursday.
“When it hits so close to home, that’s the biggest killer for all of us. It’s one of our guys who was just pulled over to help a motorist, just wanted to get him safely off the highway,” Nicoll said. “Drunken driver came along, hit him.”
Nicoll said Russell’s death hurt tow drivers across the state.
“This was a human being who didn’t deserve this. He pulled over as a kind-hearted person to help change a tire, and his life was taken — all for for making sure someone was safe and could get off the roadway. It’s just not fair.”
When asked, several tow drivers Wednesday told of being hit by mirrors of cars speeding by — evidently oblivious to the tow truck’s bright markings and flashing yellow lights as well as Connecticut’s “move over” law. Adopted in 2009, the law requires drivers who see a stationary emergency vehicle on a travel lane, breakdown lane or shoulder of a highway to immediately reduce speed and — if safely possible — move over to create a buffer lane when passing.
Weeks, a 17-year veteran, said way too many drivers ignore all of that and zip past tow drivers close and fast.
“I was clipped by the mirror of a car going by on the highway. When a mirror breaks off on your back, it will send you into a spin. I was cut up, the guy didn’t stop — just kept going like nothing happened.” Weeks said. “There were many times when I could have been killed on the side of the highway.”
Nationwide, tow drivers have 15 times higher risk of on-the-job death than the average American employee, according to a 2019 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The average annual death rate was 43 per 100,000 workers, according to the Center of Fatal Occupational Injuries, with the top cause being a blow from a passing vehicle.
Russell, who drove for more than a decade, himself had nearly been hit in the past, said Harley Garcia, operations manager at RTT LLC Towing & Transportation in South Windsor, where Russell worked for the past two years.
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“This one he just couldn’t beat,” Garcia said. “He was a hard worker, he was always there, around the clock.”
Like most veteran drivers, Joe Miano of Hartford-based Friendly Auto Body & Towing has been hit by a mirror and has dodged many other close calls.
“When you’re on the highway, you’re constantly, constantly looking in front of you and back of you — it’s only a split second before a car runs right into you or comes toward you and you have to jump and move out of the way,” said Miano, past president of Towing & Recovery Professionals of Connecticut, which represents about 300 towing companies in the state.
He wants state police to run enforcement campaigns for the Move Over law, saying the highway culture in Connecticut seems to minimize the importance of flashing yellow lights.
“No one pays attention to it. It’s not enforced. If you go down south on 95, you see lights flashing a mile away, automatically the cars in front of you move over. Here in the Northeast, they see flashing lights and (some) cars veer into you,” Miano said.
Several drivers said state police need more troopers so they’d have more available to stop at roadside scenes and protect the tow driver, since red and blue lights get more respect than yellow ones.
“Don’t drink and drive. Slow down and move over when you see emergency vehicles on the road,” Garcia said. “People don’t realize vehicles are a weapon. People don’t operate them with the care they need to.”