MOVE OVER: Tow trucks considered emergency vehicles but drivers not defined as emergency personnel

MOVE OVER: Tow trucks considered emergency vehicles but drivers not defined as emergency personnel

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - For some first responders, one move over violation could be the difference between life and death.

"On April 7, 2012, I got the call about 7-7:30 from one of the customers my husband was towing. He said, ‘Your husband has been hit,’” said Florence resident Kady Coffey.

Coffey’s husband, James Coffey, was a tow truck driver who was helping a stranded motorist on Interstate 95 when he was killed walking back to his truck.

“My son was exactly one-month-old when James died. My son was born March 7 and James died April 7,” Coffey said.

The International Towing Museum said one tow truck driver dies every six days nationwide because a driver fails to move over and slow down.

WMBF Investigative Series on Move Over Law:

Part 1: MOVE OVER: HCFR firefighter describes the seconds that changed her life in exclusive interview

Part 2: MOVE OVER: Low number of traffic tickets issued reveal challenges in Move Over Law

Under South Carolina’s Move Over Law, tow trucks are considered authorized emergency vehicles. However, the law does not include tow truck drivers in its definition of emergency personnel.

Drivers are required to move over a lane and slow down when they pass emergency scenes.

“The thing people don’t realize is that we’re out there helping y’all and they don’t understand when they come upon us, they need to move over because we are working,” tow truck driver Rusty Ard said. “It’s our job, but sometimes it’s a little scary.”

Ard runs Rusty’s Towing in Florence County. It’s a business he’s been in for years after learning from his father. He said in his many years as a tow truck driver he’s been hit multiple times.

“I was loading up a car and it was a little narrow road and as I was working my controllers. I turn around to hook it up and just as I turned around to hook it up a young lady run over me,” Ard recalled. “She hit my left leg.”

He said the woman kept on driving.

To keep himself safe while on the job, Ard said he must constantly be aware of his surroundings while he is loading up a car. He said in most cases, there are just inches between him and a car speeding down the highway.

“We’re just like everybody else. We got a family to go home to at night,” Ard said. “Sometimes you think about looking for another job, but I love it. I really do. I enjoy it. I enjoy what I do for other people.”

While he loves his job, Ard said he wishes tow truck drivers were considered emergency personnel as a sign of respect and he believes violators should face harsher consequences.

Legislative changes

At the time of her husband’s accident, Coffey said she didn’t know about the Move Over Law, but now she is doing everything she can to spread awareness.

Coffey said the driver who hit her husband was not charged with a move over violation.

“My one question is why do we have a move over law if we can't enforce it? What's the purpose in having this law that was supposed to protect him (but) failed him?” Coffey said.

Coffey started the Move Over South Carolina Facebook page and traveled across the country speaking to other tow truck drivers.

She is also working with South Carolina legislators to change the law.

In 2015, Coffey worked with South Carolina representatives to file a bill to make changes to the state’s Move Over Law.

A version of that bill is currently being considered by state lawmakers.

If passed, the bill would make April Move Over Awareness Month, provide free traffic management training to tow truck drivers, and require the Department of Motor Vehicles to include information on the Move Over Law in driver’s education manuals.

Coffey said she would also like to eventually get tow truckers listed as emergency personnel.

“Anything I can do, I’m going to do it. If there’s a chance that I can save someone else’s life, I will and I’m not going to stop because of the pain that I have to endure along with this family. James was 24 years old. Twenty-four, that’s too young,” she said.

Coffey is not the only one fighting for change.

In North Carolina, Lumberton police officer Jason Quick’s death is fueling lawmakers to consider harsher penalties for drivers who fail to move over.

A driver stuck and killed Quick in December 2018 while he was working the scene of an accident.

The proposed ‘Officer Jason Quick Act’ would upgrade charges for a driver who hits an emergency vehicle from a misdemeanor to a felony. If that driver kills or injures the emergency responder, the proposed act would increase potential prison time.

Currently, the law in South Carolina states violators face only a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $500.

Moving Forward

Local first responders vary in their opinion of how the Move Over Law can be enforced better.

Some said stricter consequences are needed, while others looked to increase awareness as an avenue for change.

Cpl. Sonny Collins with the South Carolina Highway Patrol said he thinks violators may not know they need to move over, so increased education is the easiest path.

“We can do enforcement but you’re only touching one car at the time,” Collins said. “When you do enforcement of any type, when you do education, you’re hitting an entire population with that message at one time. That’s where you’re going to get more buy-in from the public."

Collins said he thinks the more awareness and materials that can be pushed out, the easier it will be for more drivers to fall into a habit of moving over and slowing down.

The South Carolina Highway Patrol pushes out a #MoveOver campaign during various times of the year.

Following Horry County firefighter Beth Petty’s accident, Horry County Fire Rescue said it is also aiming to push out more materials about the law.

Petty questions why the law can’t be as advertised as speeding in a construction zone.

“That sign hits you really hard like, ‘Let them work. Let them live,’ and I’m like what about us?” Petty said. “We’re also working on the roadway, why isn’t there a similar idea? Why can’t this law be enforced enough?”

She thinks harsher penalties may be needed to hold violators responsible.

And while there is no easy fix, there is a simple place to start,

“Move over, slow down; it’s a huge team effort. It’s important that we all work together as a team,” Horry County Fire Chief Joseph Tanner said. “You’re helping us by protecting us as well. And if we all work together towards that then we won’t be here talking about this incident again and hopefully we won’t have to do that again. But I think the more awareness we can put out there the better off we’ll all be.”

This is the final addition of WMBF Investigates’ four-part series into the Move Over Law.

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