When tow truck driver Dwayne Makar climbs down from his cab to hook up a disabled vehicle on Interstate 95, he hovers close to his truck — as if the 60-ton hulk of metal were providing life support.
And, in a way, it is.
As cars, 18-wheelers and buses blow by, creating blasts of wind strong enough to throw a person off balance, the giant Peterbilt tow truck offers Makar some protection from the most dangerous part of his job: working inches from a seemingly endless flow of vehicles whose drivers can easily veer off course.
“That’s called ‘the dead zone,’ ” Makar said, scooting between the rear of his tow truck and the disabled vehicle. “You want to spend as little time as possible between the trucks, because if somebody hits you, you’re dead.”
A bill that cleared the Maryland House of Delegates on Thursday could make life as a tow truck driver a little safer. The legislation — sponsored in the House by Dels. David D. Rudolph (D-Cecil) and James E. Malone Jr. (D-Baltimore County) and in the state Senate by Sens. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford) and Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) — would require motorists to move into an open lane away from tow trucks attending to roadside emergencies, just as motorists must now do when approaching police and other emergency vehicles. Violators would face a fine of up to $500.
The House bill passed unanimously. The Senate version is awaiting action by that body’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, which last month heard dramatic testimony from drivers who had suffered serious injuries in roadside collisions.
Makar, 43, a Glen Burnie, Md., resident who has been towing vehicles for Ted’s Towing in Baltimore for more than a decade, knows how dangerous the job can be.
The truck he drives previously belonged to James F. Schreiber Jr., who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in August 2011. On the tow truck’s door is stenciled “R.I.P. 5 Jim,” a reference to Schreiber’s radio handle at the towing firm: “Truck 5.”
Schreiber, who worked at Ted’s Towing for about 13 years,“was one of the best guys we ever had here,” said the general manager, Martin Zigler, 52. Schreiber liked to wear black clothing on the job, the better to hide the dirt, grease and other crud that tended to accumulate during a day’s work, and he spent his time between calls reading books. “We called him one of our go-to guys,” Zigler said.
Before the fatal hit-and-run, Schreiber — like many of his colleagues — had multiple close calls, including being struck by the side-view mirror of a passing vehicle, employees said. On Aug. 23, 2011, he was working on Route 100 in Anne Arundel County when a vehicle sideswiped his tow truck, apparently while he was working the lift’s controls.
Schreiber, 38, left behind two children — Emily, now 3, and Nathan, 5 — and a wife, who told lawmakers at a hearing that her husband might have had a better chance if Maryland joined 29 other states in writing a “move over” law for tow trucks.
“I think it will help, because it will educate people,” said Jenna Schreiber, 40, of Pasadena, Md. “When you see a tow truck driver or a police officer, you need to move over.”
From January 2000 to December 2005, about 130 tow truck operators were killed in towing-related incidents nationwide, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic, which provided written testimony in support of the Maryland measure. Many of the deadly collisions occurred on the side of a highway.
Walter Feick, 42, a tow truck driver from Aberdeen, Md., who works for the Maryland Transportation Authority, has been hit twice. In 2009, he was struck by the car of a motorist he was trying to help. The driver gunned his car in reverse and hit Feick with its open door, causing minor injuries.
The next accident was worse. On Dec. 17, 2012, Feick was summoned to help a woman with a flat tire on Route 152 in Joppa, Md. The woman had also called her brother-in-law, John Scott, 54, of Abingdon, Md.
Feick and Scott had just finished replacing the tire when another motorist, who was merging onto the highway from the ramp leaving southbound Interstate 95, lost control of her vehicle. She skidded into both men, throwing Feick 15 feet through the air.
“That man — I shook his hand and then he died,” Feick told a Senate committee last month. “It was horrible.”
Feick suffered a broken pelvis and other injuries, and spent more than four months recuperating at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s shock trauma unit in Baltimore. Although he had deployed warning devices and lit his emergency lights, he said, he still felt guilty that he had not done more, somehow, to prevent Scott’s death.
These days, he’s on desk duty with the highway agency. And he won’t go near the side of a highway on foot if he doesn’t have to.
“I can’t do the job — I’m too scared,” Feick told the committee. “The ‘move over’ law is very important to every one of us. We need it.”
Zigler, Ted’s general manager, supports passage of the law. But having spent years on the road or supervising others there, he said he doubts whether it will do any good.
“People don’t pay attention,” Zigler said. “I tell you, nine out of 10 times, they don’t get out of the way now for the police. I don’t think people really care anymore, unless it really happens to them.”