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American Towman Magazine Presents the Week in TowingDecember 06 - December 12, 2017
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Center-Divider U-turns

UTurns 45518By Randall C. Resch

Flatbed carriers are lengthy and difficult to maneuver in U-turns (the operator typically must use several traffic lanes to make careful approach into openings of center dividers). U-turns are especially dangerous and typically banned by many states because of increased accident risk to motorists.

Completing a full U-turn requires that opposite lanes are clear of approaching traffic prior to tower's driving into opposite-side traffic lanes. With traffic at speeds of 80 mph, impact is imminent. More importantly, towers oftentimes forget that the carrier's deck remains in traffic lanes.

In May 2010, a Florida Highway Patrol investigation stated a flatbed carrier operator attempted to make an illegal U-turn in a center-median opening of the Florida Turnpike. The tower allegedly slowed to prepare for the U-turn in the center median, yet the carrier's deck was hanging in southbound traffic lanes. As a result, a following motorist hit the carrier's deck causing their van to roll. The motorist was killed; the tower was not injured.

In January 2014, a carrier operator allegedly attempted to make a U-turn in the center divider of Hawaii's Pali Highway. Per Hawaii law, U-turns in center dividers and medians are prohibited. A news account of the accident reported the tower slowed in traffic (near the fast lane) and entered the U-turn opening. While waiting for approaching traffic to clear, an elderly motorist hit the carrier from behind, shearing the roof off their vehicle. The impact caused the Toyota Yaris to spinout and it came to a stop on an embankment. The tow operator pleaded no-contest to causing the crash.

In investigations where vehicles are hit from behind, it's commonly thought that the striking motorist is at fault. Considering traffic moving at speed, a following motorist may not see the back end of the carrier protruding into traffic lanes after it crosses lanes. Obviously, center-divider openings aren't all that wide, requiring lengthy vehicles to swing wide to complete the turn. When viewed from varying angles, a flatbed carrier could be nearly invisible to following drivers.

In June 2015, California approved Vehicle Code Section 21719. (a) "Use of Shoulders by Tow Trucks," as being a necessary component of incident response. For tow trucks and flatbed carriers to lawfully use emergency shoulders, U-turn openings on California highways demanded specific wording. I've included the entire code for using shoulders, where allowable use of U-turn openings is covered. (Note: California tow trucks are not considered first responders.)

"Section 21719. (a) Notwithstanding any other law, in the event of an emergency occurring on a roadway that requires the rapid removal of impediments to traffic or rendering of assistance to a disabled vehicle obstructing a roadway, a tow truck driver who is either operating under an agreement with the law enforcement agency responsible for investigating traffic collisions on the roadway or summoned by the owner or operator of a vehicle involved in a collision or that is otherwise disabled on the roadway may utilize the center median or right shoulder of a roadway if all of the following conditions are met:

"(1) A peace officer employed by the investigating law enforcement agency is at the scene of the roadway obstruction and has determined that the obstruction has caused an unnecessary delay to motorists using the roadway.

"(2) A peace officer employed by the investigating law enforcement agency has determined that a tow truck can provide emergency roadside assistance by removing the disabled vehicle and gives explicit permission to the tow truck driver allowing the utilization of the center median or right shoulder of the roadway.

"(3) The tow truck is not operated on the center median or right shoulder at a speed greater than what is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the roadway, and in no event at a speed that endangers the safety of persons or property.

"(4) The tow truck displays flashing amber warning lamps to the front, rear, and both sides while driving in the center median or right shoulder of a roadway pursuant to this section.

"(b) For purposes of this section, "utilize the center median" includes making a U-turn across the center median."

California's law is specific for use of shoulders and center-divider U-turns. This training topic demands towers understand the full meaning and requirements of their own state's laws. The key here is "authorization." Remember, although you may have permission by the requesting agency to use either, you are completely responsible for safe-vehicle operations. U-turns on high-speed highways is a dangerous practice. My best advice for safety to all: drive to the next exit for return.
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