RIDGEFIELD — On an overcast Thursday afternoon, there was an uncharacteristic lull between calls at TLC Towing.
Logan Wells, 21, described it as “unusual,” since towing is a 24/7 business, and there’s usually something going on.
“It’s a hard job to learn, and the hours aren’t so friendly if you’re not willing to work as much as we do. We work 24 hours,” he said. “If the phone rings at 2 or 3 a.m., we gotta go.”
Then his cellphone rang. It was the front-desk receptionist asking if he can take a “Lexus on its side.”
The car crash was only a few miles up the road from the shop, which sits on an area of dirt and gravel. The offices operate out of a scruffy doublewide mobile home.
4545 S. 11th Way, Ridgefield.
Number of employees: 20.
Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook: The bureau doesn’t track tow drivers specifically, but they fall under the umbrella of truck drivers more generally. Employment of heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers is projected to grow 2 percent through 2029. “As the demand for goods increases, more truck drivers will be needed to keep supply chains moving,” the bureau reports. The average salary for truck drivers in the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, Ore. metro area was $25.23 per hour or $52,470 per year, according to May 2020 data. Wells said he earns about $25 per hour.
Wells is the son of the shop’s founder, Cory Wells, who opened it in 1994. Logan Wells grew up around the shop and is “trained on everything,” he said.
“I always wanted to stay away from it, but after high school, I tried it out,” he said. “I’m used to it.”
Though accidents like the Lexus on its side are rare occurrences for most people, calls like that are usual for Wells and the 20 other employees at the shop. Requests for towing run the gamut, from businesses that have cars parked in spots that they shouldn’t be, to logging trucks stuck on remote dirt roads.
The Lexus certainly wasn’t in a remote area but rather on the nicely paved South Union Ridge Parkway. In black pants, brown boots and a TLC-towing sweatshirt covered in dirt and dust, Wells hopped in a flatbed truck to see about the Lexus.
With a sense of calm, Wells drove the aqua-green-colored flatbed truck to the scene, which was blocked off by a Ridgefield Police Department vehicle flashing its lights. Several yards ahead, a black 2017 Lexus RX350 lay completely on its right side. The circumstances that led to the crash weren’t immediately clear, but it appeared the driver had lost control and hit a raised median, resulting in the turnover. There were no other cars involved. The car’s driver, who appeared unharmed, stood to the side talking on a cellphone while a police officer assessed the situation.
Wells said most towing businesses have a relationship with local police departments. Towing is an often overlooked but necessary part of responding to emergencies on roadways.
“It’s fun and it’s interesting when they call us because it’s like, we have to be there now,” Wells said with an emphasis on “now.”
While calls can be intriguing and challenging, depending on the scenario, towing is a dangerous job due to regularly having to work on the sides of busy roads and freeways. It can also be a bit traumatic, Wells said, since drivers are responding to a crash that could have fatalities or serious injuries.
At the Lexus crash scene, the police officer blocked the road for Wells to easily access the car without issue. But blocking an entire freeway isn’t always an option; the result is fast-moving vehicles zipping by a narrow shoulder where employees like Wells are trying to work.
“I’ve been on the side of the freeway, and a semi blew by really close and it blew my hat off,” Wells said. “When they’re going that fast, the wind wants to suck you into the lane of travel. My brother’s been hit, my dad’s been hit a few times by vehicles on the side of the freeway.”
The family has been lucky. Tow truck drivers have died, even recently, despite a state law mandating drivers to move over and slow down when there are any flashing lights on the side of the road.
On April 24, 63-year-old Arthur Anderson, a tow truck driver and owner of Longview business Affordable Towing, was killed when an impaired driver hit a vehicle parked on the shoulder of Interstate 5, according to the Longview Daily News.
A recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health highlighted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website addresses the issue of safety in the towing business.
It notes that historically, workplace safety studies have focused on other first responders, such as law enforcement officers, firefighters and other emergency medical service workers. But between 2011 and 2016, there were 191 deaths of employees in the motor vehicle towing industry.
“This number translates to an annual average fatality rate of nearly 43 deaths per 100,000 workers, more than 15 times the rate of 2.8 deaths per 100,000 workers for all U.S. private industries combined,” the study notes.
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To address this issue, earlier this month representatives from AAA-Washington, Washington State Patrol, the state Department of Transportation and local towing companies released a public service announcement promoting the Move Over and Slow Down law.
“It’s heart wrenching. It hurts,” Wells said. “They’re doing the same stuff we are. It’s not like we’re enemies; we’re all friends out here. We want help each other out. Whenever I see a tow truck on the side of the road, I pull up behind them and put my lights on and try to block the road a little bit, so cars are more aware.”
According to Wells’ observations, it’s only one out of every few drivers who actually move over.
“I think it’s something they need to teach more in driving school is to slow down and move over for emergency vehicles,” he said.
Back at the scene of the wreck, the drizzly day began to give way to sun.
Wells successfully latched a large chain to the Lexus’ tires, then attached a hook from the tow truck, operated by a remote. He slowly reeled in the winch and the car dropped down with a dramatic slam on the road, back in an upright position. The windshield wipers were still on from the earlier rain.
The man’s family showed up, giving him hugs. Wells then reeled the mangled car onto the truck bed, and the man assessed his personal items on the sidewalk, putting them into a box. He retrieved what he could, since the car would be impounded at TLC Towing until reclaimed by the owner.
As Wells picked up some last bit of debris off of the ground, impatient drivers started to weave around the tow truck.
And just like that, the road was clear again, as if nothing ever happened.