BILLINGS — Move over and slow down for emergency vehicles- that's the message staff at Hanser's Automotive and troopers with Montana Highway Patrol wanted to share with the community Wednesday in the wake of the deaths of two Hanser's drivers over the weekend.
“Yes, we chose to be in this industry, but we don’t do snow dances and ask people to go flying into the ditch. We all want to go home at the end of our shifts. We want to get back to our loving families. I think, again, when you see those lights on the side of the road, remember there’s people behind them," said Spence Hanser, manager at Hanser's Automotive in Billings.
Nick Visser, 28 of Billings, and Casie Allen, 28 of Reed Point were struck and killed by a vehicle in the passing lane of Interstate 90 east of Columbus on a snowy Sunday morning. The driver who hit the men didn't notice the brake lights on the semi truck ahead, which was slowing down for the tow trucks. The driver went into the passing lane to avoid crashing into the semi and struck the tow-truck drivers.
At highway speeds, a vehicle can travel 100 feet or more per second. When road conditions are slick, it takes a much longer distance for a vehicle to stop. Sgt. Kyle Hayter, a 14-year veteran of the highway patrol, said increased following distance from the car in front can help avoid collisions and leave more time to avoid hazards on the road.
Hayter said in optimal road conditions, the general rule for following distance is to leave one to one-and-a-half car lengths of space for every 10 miles per hour of speed.
“If you’re traveling at 60 miles per hour, you’re almost looking at eight car lengths between you and the other vehicle, and that’s again when the roads are optimum. So, when the weather is bad and the roads are bad, that (following distance) needs to be at least doubled," Hayter said.
You should leave between 10 and 15 car lengths of following distance at highway speeds on slick roads, Hayter said.
Another tip both professionals gave is to stay home when the roads are bad, unless it's absolutely necessary to travel. The fewer people on the road, the less people will get in accidents and first-responder resources will be less stretched.
“Drive for the conditions that you are getting into and get that into your mindset that there are going to be people slid off the roads. Things are going to happen. It’s not that it might or could, it’s going to happen," Hanser said.
The result of moving over for first responders and slowing down can be the difference between life and death for people that work on Montana highways every day. Both Hayter and Hanser said they've had their fair share of "near misses."
“Everyone has their near misses, unfortunately. It’s too common, not just on crash scenes but on traffic stops. Just being out on the highway is a hazard of the job, unfortunately. With the new lights and light bars and technologies, they’re bright, they’re very visible. It’s a tragedy that doesn’t necessarily need to happen," Hayter said.
Motorists need to watch for orange cones, diamond-shaped signs and flashing lights that are placed to warn of an upcoming crash site. It is required by state law to move over and slow down for any type of emergency vehicle on the road.
“I can’t tell you how many people go by us going fast and you know they’re looking at their phone. They don’t even know you are there," Hanser said.
Montana state law says that motorists approaching an emergency vehicle on roads with a speed limit of 50 miles per hour or greater must change lanes and reduce speed to at least 20 miles per hour below the posted speed limit while passing the emergency vehicle.
“I would encourage motorists that as soon as they see that impending hazard or construction maintenance vehicle, or highway patrol vehicle or fire truck, that they start preparing for that. Don’t wait until the last minute to make your lane change or slow down. Especially on the icy roads, that could be too late and you could lose control right in the crash zone or where they’re working," Hayter said.
To keep themselves safe, tow truck drivers are required by federal law to carry at least two signs to warn other motorists of a crash or tow truck operations, Hanser said. The signs are to be placed at least 1,000 feet behind the accident.
For larger incidents, the tow operators will bring a separate truck and trailer with attached indicator light board and filled with orange cones and signs. They can place cones to taper off one lane of traffic and park the light board even further from the crash to give a better heads up to motorists.
“You want your traffic control to tell a story as people are approaching so they know what they need to do," Hanser said.
Hanser said in his experience, drivers are more likely to slow down for a scene when there are cones and signs put in appropriate places. The amber light bar on the tow truck doesn't tell the full story of what's ahead and could leave questions in the driver's mind.
"When you’re looking at just a flashing beacon on the side of the road, it is telling you that there’s an emergency there, there’s a warning, there’s a hazard, but it doesn’t really do a good job of saying where should I be going, what should I be doing," Hanser said.
Stay attentive and stay safe on the roads this winter. Hanser said he doesn't want to see more death.
“We’ve got to get everyone to understand and keep the message going forward that I don’t want to see this happen to anybody else. Sadly, the day after our guys were killed, a fellow set of brothers in Pennsylvania had a driver killed out there one day after," Hanser said.