On Thursday March 11, 2021 at 6:00 pm emergency responders from Cudworth and Wakaw were once again situated at the intersection of Highways 41 and 2 to bring awareness to the dangers faced by those who come to the assistance of those in need on the highway. The 2021 “Slow to 60” Awareness Campaign is a simple message but one that continues to be ignored by many. The Roadside Responders Association (RRA) of Saskatchewan represents the many voices of the Towing and Recovery industry in the province and have been instrumental in the yearly awareness campaigns which started as a memorial for tow truck driver Courtney Schaefer who was killed on the job in March 2017. Slow down, move over isn’t that difficult to remember, or at least it shouldn’t be, however as the results of the different campaigns held across the province come in there are some very startling facts being shared. Here at Wakaw, the intersection of Highways 41 and 2, is infamous for the number of collisions that have occurred there over the years and with the large number of emergency vehicles that participated in the event, drivers slowed, perhaps out of curiosity, while travelling through the intersection. Fire, EMS, and Fire and Rescue vehicles from Wakaw, Cudworth, the RM of Hoodoo and St Louis, along with tow trucks from Rosthern, Cudworth, and Melfort fanned out in all four directions from the intersection. Harv Britton of Harv’s Auto Body and Towing in Rosthern, participated in the event at Wakaw and the one held at Rosthern on Highway 11 Wednesday evening where a different story was told. He told The Wakaw Recorder that the Fire Department and Fire and Rescue units along with tow trucks positioned themselves along the side of both north bound and south bound lanes of the divided highway for one hour with pilons and lights flashing. One RCMP officer in a cruiser was in attendance as well. During that hour approximately 195 vehicles passed, and of those about 30% continued driving at, near or over the speed limit, and roughly 55% slowed some but were still going faster than 60 km/h. Still more alarming was that roughly 30% of those that did not slow to 60 were semi tractor-trailer units. The one thing that never failed to make drivers slow down was when the police cruiser was positioned so that oncoming drivers could see it clearly. Obviously the potential of being ticketed was enough to get people to take their foot off the gas pedal. The news from Balgonie located on Highway 1, was even worse. The Balgonie Volunteer Fire Department setup a “complete scene” with the normal lights, signage and pilons. In a 30 minute period, of the 66 semis which passed the scene only 13 slowed down (20%), of 65 cars/light trucks only 23 slowed (35%) and overall less than one-third of vehicles driving by the scene, slowed down and moved over.
The law requires drivers to slow to 60km/h and move over to the other lane when passing a tow truck or other emergency vehicles including first responders, ambulance, fire fighters, and police as well as highway workers. Vice-President of the Roadside Responders Association, Harv Britton, said that across North America, before COVID, one tow truck driver was hit or killed every day while on the job. With less traffic on the roads in 2020 due to the pandemic, that time frame has stretched to one every six days. “Every death of a working emergency responder on the side of the highway, is preventable,” says the RRA and one is too many. “We all just want to get home safely,” said Britton. Saskatchewan, Britton stated, has led the way in trying to make the job of emergency personnel working on the side of the road safer. In response to the accident which claimed the life of Courtney Schaefer, and after hearing the testimonies of hundreds of operators across the province, the Saskatchewan legislature passed Bill 65 – The Traffic Safety Amendment Act 2017 – to allow tow truck operators to display flashing blue lights at the scene in addition to amber. The Bill passed all three readings on April 6th, 2017. Saskatchewan was the first province to add the blue lights to tow trucks to increase their visibility.
Tyler McMurchy, manager of media relations with SGI, in an interview from 2019 said that the problem isn't just exclusive to Saskatchewan, but that doesn't make it less of an issue. "I think it is very important to get the word out about the importance of sharing the road and giving our emergency service personnel the time and space to do their jobs when they are on the side of the highway," he said. "We depend on them to keep us safe, but what some people don't know is these workers need our help to keep them safe as well. That's why it's so important that if you see those flashing lights on the side of the highway, you need to slow down and move over because whoever it is, they are likely rendering assistance to someone else in need. That roadside is their workplace and we as motorists definitely need to do our part to keep them safe."
“That’s our workplace out there on the side of the road. We have no choice of where we have to hook up to these vehicles or where we have to respond to accidents. It’s where it happens and that’s where we have to work,” said one CAA tow truck operator. "I think anybody who has been on the side of the road in that capacity, a police officer, a fire truck, or firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, tow truck workers, they all have a near miss story, or more than one, where somebody brushed passed them travelling way too fast and way too close."
When asked if he felt standard regulations were needed across the country to get the driving public to adhere to the laws, Harv Britton’s response was quick and definitive, “Absolutely.” As it is currently, a ‘mish-mosh’ of regulations are in effect in different provinces and the Roadside Responders Association has encouraged the provincial government to have that conversation with their counterparts in other provinces. In Alberta for example, tow trucks are only allowed to have the amber lights and with so many other vehicles that use the flashing amber lights, they have become almost commonplace, but there seems to be little interest in changing it. In 2020 at the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association convention a resolution was brought forward by the Village of Beiseker to lobby Alberta government to allow blue lights on tow trucks. The resolution was made in response to an incident on the evening of January 22, 2020, when a tow truck from Beiseker Towing was operating on the QEII near Innisfail. The tow truck operator was working as safely as possible with the amber strobe lights flashing and wearing high visibility clothing. A semi hit the tow truck and burst into flames. The semi driver was killed. Fortunately, the tow truck operator was not in his truck at the time. The tow truck was destroyed and parts of it were strewn all over the highway. The resolution was defeated.
Additionally, drivers in Alberta are not required to slow to 60 km/h if they can safely move over into another lane of traffic. In Saskatchewan, the law is clear all traffic must move over if safe to do so and slow to 60 km/h when passing any type of emergency vehicle including tow trucks. The only exception to that comes into play when the emergency situation occurs on a divided highway and in that instance the traffic in the opposite lanes across the divide are not required to slow down. Rendering assistance should not come at the cost of a life. That one minute of time that it costs drivers to get to their destination due to slowing down and moving over when passing emergency workers is not more important than a person’s life.
Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Wakaw Recorder