Tow truck driver's death sparks new traffic law - East Valley Tribune: Ahwatukee Foothills

Tow truck driver's death sparks new traffic law

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Posted: Saturday, July 23, 2011 6:15 am | Updated: 10:13 am, Thu Aug 29, 2013.

The funeral procession for 44-year-old Jesse Gault was nearly three years ago, but it remains one of the East Valley's most somber traffic-related occasions and helped spur a new motorist law.

Senate Bill 1133, a comprehensive state law that went into effect Wednesday, requires motorists to make a lane change when approaching any vehicles with flashing lights on the side of the road or highway. Referred to as the Move Over Law, it also applies to tow trucks and public safety vehicles.

Gault, a veteran tow truck driver for the American Automobile Association and father of four who worked at Thompson's Auto Repair and Towing in Mesa, was helping Jean Bunch, 56, a nurse at Phoenix Children's Hospital, change a tire when they were struck and killed by a motorist on Loop 202 near Gilbert and Guadalupe roads in August 2008. The tow truck, which was about 20 feet behind Bunch's vehicle, was struck with enough force that it travelled 20 feet and crushed Gault and Bunch pinned between it and her SUV. Bunch's vehicle came to rest at the wire median after crossing three lanes.

Gault's funeral procession was marked by more than 200 tow trucks riding along the freeway as members of the tight-knit towing community followed one of Thompson's flatbed tow trucks with Gault's casket strapped on it.

Bryan Vivian, longtime owner of Thompson's, said he was glad to hear the law now is in effect.

"It's about time," Vivian said. "It's always been very scary sending our drivers and equipment out on the highway on a call. People just don't pay attention to us - maybe now they will. It's really scary being on the side of the highway. I don't know if this will help, but at least the law is in effect and people should be aware of it."

In the last five years, three AAA tow truck drivers and a motorist being assisted by one of them have been killed responding to roadside assistance calls because of people waiting too long to pull over or not pulling over at all, according to information from AAA.

In recent years, there also have been eight Arizona Department of Public Safety officers killed by motorists during roadside assistance calls.

Now, under the new law, also known as the Roadside Safety Assistance Act, motorists approaching a stationary authorized emergency vehicle that has flashing lights must yield the right-of-way by making a lane change, provided it is safe to do so. The language in the revised law sponsored by Sen. John Nelson, R-Glendale, removes specific references to stationary authorized emergency vehicles and applies the current driving procedures to all signaling stationary vehicles.

Anyone who violates the requirement is subject to a fine up to $250 plus court costs.

According to the Arizona Department of Transportation, there were a total of 642 such violations in slightly more than the last three years, with 109 reported in 2010, according to information from the state Senate.

A spokeswoman for AAA Arizona said that the law was something they had been promoting for quite some time as Arizona now is among 40 states that have a comprehensive pull-over law.

"We hear about a lot of close calls on a regular basis," said Michelle Donati, who added AAA responds to 1,200 roadside assistance calls a day throughout the state. "We believe the revised law will give the tow truck drivers the protection they deserve, and it will ultimately save lives. We also want to make sure that our tow truck drivers have a safe space to do their job."

The law also had support from companies such as Rural-Metro Fire Department, which contracts with numerous East Valley cities, and Southwest Ambulance.

In recent years, Southwest Ambulance promoted a program similar to the new law, "Merging to the Right for sirens and lights."

"We certainly always thought it was an important message to bring to the forefront," said Holly Walter, Southwest Ambulance spokeswoman.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com

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