Widow of tow truck driver killed on Saskatchewan roadside hopes for changes
Health & Safety Legislation Transportation saskatchewan Tow Truck
Death led to allowance of blue and amber lights, fines for speeders
By Spencer Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Courtney Schaefer’s widow, Kim Schaefer, says she hopes more changes to laws keeping emergency responders safe come as a result of her husband’s death responding to an accident at the side of the road near Esterhazy four years ago. Schaefer was a tow-truck operator struck by a vehicle on the side of the highway as he attempted to help a motorist during a snow storm.
Some changes have already come about because of Schaefer’s death, and a movement by firefighters, police officers, tow truck operators and ambulance operators to memorialize Schaefer each March is spreading to more regions.
Kim Schaefer says the first steps supporters took after Schaefer’s death were pushing for blue lights to help identify tow truck operators from a distance and help prepare drivers to slow down when approaching them.
“The first step we took was the blue lights being allowed on the tow trucks. We think they’ve made a difference. We are trying everything for people to just be safe out there. But people still aren’t slowing down, we’re hoping the lights make a difference and everyone slows down. Everybody seems to be in a rush lately and more people are still getting killed each year.”
Schaefer says the annual Slow Down, Move Over event was kickstarted by tow truck operators who have had to deal with the dangers of the job.
“Roadside responders and tow-operators were the ones who really got this together. They informed me the first time and I thought it was a good idea. Dallas Bailey from Bailey Boys Towing comes every year with the fire department. It’s just Saskatchewan-wide but now they want it to be nation-wide.”
In part because of Courtney’s death, a law was passed to allow for the use of blue and amber lights as well as fines for those who pass emergency responders at above 60 km/h on the highway.
Schaefer hopes the movement expands past Saskatchewan and spreads across Canada.
“We do get a lot of support,” said Schaefer. “Every community from Whitewood, to Yorkton, and even Saskatoon do this too. So moving forward we want to work with Manitoba and Alberta to hopefully make this go Canada-wide.”
President of the Roadside Responders Association of Saskatchewan (RRA), Brad Stratychuk, says the job can be dangerous due to reckless drivers.
“If you’ve ever broken down on the side of the road or had a flat tire, you can imagine how scary that is and it’s something that our industry deals with on a daily if not hourly basis. We’ll do anything we can do to make people aware that it’s a human life standing there and they need to put the phone down and slow down and be aware so we can get home at the end of the day, it’s scary to be out there for sure,” said Stratychuk.
He says that the process of getting new lights started in 2015 with a survey by SGI.
“In around 2015, SGI passed out a survey to the industry that was just a general question survey about wearing steel toed boots or wearing high-vis coats and using construction cones. One of the questions in that survey was asking what colour of lights we would like to have on our tow trucks. They had quite a few companies respond to that survey and that started the conversation about changing the lights so they are more visible. In the fall of 2016, we were fairly active in dealing with the ministry and with SGI in advocating for a distinct light, whether it be red and amber or blue and amber, we just wanted something.”
Stratychuk says the use of amber lights was not having the same effect it once did.
“There are so many orange lights now on bobcats, on wide loads, and it seemed that people just thought we were them and became immune to the lights. When you’re on the side of the road and traffic is going past you quickly, it’s not a good place to be. North America-wide in 2016 there was one tow truck driver killed every six days. Which is a bigger number than police and firemen combined. And it’s 100 per cent not necessary, it doesn’t need to happen that way.”
Saskatchewan became the first province to have unique lighting on tow trucks and roadside responders after the group continued their advocacy.
Stratychuk says that the unfortunate accident with Courtney Schaefer accelerated the process.
“We started the advocacy in the fall, and in March of 2017, Courtney was tragically killed doing his job. And that sped things up. The government moved very swiftly and introduced distinctive lighting to our industry and made it a law that passing us at over 60 km/h results in a traffic fine.
We’re advocating for some changes and in the fall and we sent a letter saying that this was going to happen again. It is not a matter of if, it’s when. There have been two tow truck drivers in Saskatchewan that have been killed now, but there’s been a whole bunch injured which is completely unnecessary if people would be able to respect the fact that somebody was there working and just slow down a little bit.”
Moving forward, Stratychuk says they will be working with the Roadside Responders Association of Alberta to bring similar laws to Alberta.
It’s not just tow truck operators and roadside responders who benefit from this awareness campaign, it is also something local fire departments advocate for.
Volunteer Fire Chief of the Esterhazy Fire Department, Borden Kishalowich, says they are just doing their job and trying to help those who need it.
“Anytime we’re out on the road with lights flashing. We’re trying to help somebody out, whether it’s extracting someone from a vehicle or helping the ambulance service and we have guys getting equipment out of the vehicles. We’re always around the trucks and it just makes it safer for us,” said Kishalowich.
He explained that following the accident in 2017, the community became more aware and cautious when driving near emergency vehicles, but there are still issues with non-Saskatchewan residents travelling on the highways.
“In our local community, anybody that’s here has noticed and has definitely slowed down when we’re out there. But we have so many travelers from different provinces who might not be aware of some of our rules out here. It’s the people that are new to the country or workers who are from out of province that doesn’t know about this, it helps make them aware.”
Kishalowich explains that they aren’t asking much and are only asking drivers to slow down and be cautious.
“We want you to slow down as the first thing. Sometimes we have to block off one of the lanes so we will have members on the road directing traffic, so you may have to stop to let the other lane through or come to a complete stop if the accident is in the road and we have to block the highway for a while. That’s all we’re asking. Just slow down and follow our instructions.”