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Caravan honors tow truck driver who was killed in roadside rescue

More than 200 tow trucks flashed their lights in a caravan from Grandview to a funeral home in Liberty on Saturday to honor “a fallen brother” while making a pointed appeal for safety.

The folks driving the brawny vehicles were mourning 18-year-old Blake Gresham. He was killed Monday on the Christopher S. Bond Bridge as his truck was stopped, emergency lights flashing, while the tow operator hooked up a stranded vehicle.

That accident has drawn attention to Missouri’s “move over” law, which requires motorists to give wide berth to emergency vehicles stopped on the roadside. It has also raised concern about whether the law gives enough protection to tow trucks.

Gresham’s family has started a nonprofit organization, Move Over for Blake. According to his obituary, the aim is to raise public safety awareness for tow truck workers “and other emergency personnel on the roadways.”

Gresham’s fellow tow drivers say somebody who hasn’t had a close call with too-close passing traffic hasn’t been in the business very long.

“We’re just asking people to move over and give us some room,” said Mike Nichols of GT Towing in Smithville. “I understand that people get upset, that they’re in a hurry to get somewhere. But that extra few seconds it takes to change lanes saves someone’s life.”

Although he was a young driver — you must be 18 to get the necessary commercial driver’s license — Gresham was not new to the life of roadside rescue. His parents own GT Towing and Nichols said he had been “in a tow truck since he could walk.”

So, Nichols said, he knew to be careful.

But there’s only so much that tow drivers can do to protect themselves if ordinary motorists won’t move over or don’t have room to do so, which probably was the case in last week’s accident.

“You’re always a little jumpy out there,” said Matt Mansell of Santa Fe Tow Service of Lenexa, who was among hundreds who gathered Saturday morning for the ride.

Many truck cabs were packed with families. Dozens of the vehicles had signs or stickers acknowledging Gresham.

“You never know when someone’s going to come flying by,” Mansell said.

Whether motorists are always

required

to give tow operators a particularly wide berth, however, is unclear.

Kansas City police told reporters that tow trucks were not included in the state’s “move over” law, which requires motorists to switch lanes for emergency vehicles or slow down if they cannot.

The news caused a stir because some tow truck drivers and the Missouri Highway Patrol thought differently.

They believed tow truck drivers were covered under the law and in fact said they had worked together to get the original law passed in Missouri after a trooper was hit by a vehicle and killed.

Missouri’s “move over” law was enacted in 2002 as a Class C misdemeanor, according to the Highway Patrol.

The next year, Missouri Trooper Michael L. Newton was killed along Interstate 70 in Lafayette County. He was one of nine troopers killed on the side of the road in the patrol’s history.

Newton had stopped a motorist, and while they both were sitting in Newton’s patrol car, they were struck by a pickup truck pulling a flatbed trailer.

Newton, 25, was killed and a Kansas City area resident was seriously injured.

In 2006, the penalty of the law was increased to a Class A misdemeanor and the crimes of involuntary manslaughter and second-degree assault were modified to include violations of the “move over” statute.

Sgt. Collin Stosberg, a spokesman for the Highway Patrol, said most states have some version of a “move over” law. They may vary, but Stosberg said the important thing is for motorists to take heed of any situation involving people or vehicles stopped along roadways.

“Whether it’s an emergency worker or a stranded motorist or tow trucks, we’ve seen far too many pedestrian deaths in the state of Missouri,” Stosberg said. “Slow down. Just be a courteous driver — and save lives.”

As for whether tow trucks are covered, a Kansas City police attorney began researching the issue, but by this weekend the issue wasn’t completely resolved.

Kansas City police say they now believe tow truck drivers are covered if they are “displaying red or red and blue lights,” as the statute language requires. Police officials sent an email to department commanders and supervisors to alert them to the department’s shift in opinion and to ask them to inform officers.

But police still aren’t sure if tow truck drivers can legally use lights of those colors. A different state law appears to ban blue lights for all vehicles except for fire, ambulance and rescue squads that have permits. The attorney is still researching that aspect and city ordinances.

Meanwhile, a tow operator who worked to get the law passed a decade ago said he didn’t realize the law contained language concerning a tow truck’s lights. He thought all tow trucks, even those using amber lights, were covered.

“It is confusing the way it’s written,” said Elwood Rahn, owner of ABC Tow. “Somebody needs to clarify this. I’ve not given any regard to the red and blue light thing. I don’t remember it being in the statute we passed.”

Rahn, who was on the Missouri Tow Trucks Association when the original law was passed, said he planned to contact the association’s lobbyist for clarification. He added that studies have shown that amber lights are more easily seen by motorists under a wider range of conditions.

Stosberg said that as far as the Missouri Highway Patrol is concerned, tow truck operators are covered under the “move over” law.

“They are emergency vehicles once they arrive at an emergency,” he said.

If police and tow truck drivers are confused, it’s no wonder regular motorists might be, Rahn said. He said many motorists don’t move over for tow trucks. He is also unaware of anyone being cited for failing to move over for a tow truck.

Law or not, motorists should pull over for tow drivers, Rahn said.

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