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Why tow trucks can’t get to a crash scene any faster

SDOT tweeted on Aug. 19: Collision on Alaskan Way Viaduct at S Atlantic St blocking a SB right lane. Expect delays. (@SeattleDOT)

It happened again. A crash on southbound Highway 99 in Seattle took nearly two hours to clear during the height of the Friday afternoon commute.

On Aug. 19, two cars crashed on the Alaskan Way Viaduct near South Atlantic Street by the stadiums. It was reported at 3:17 p.m. and wasn’t cleared until 5:20 p.m.

By the time the cars were cleared, SR 99 was jammed all the way to Green Lake.

A lot of drivers asked why the city can’t clear a simple wreck, especially after the fish truck and the crab truck problems that highlighted flaws in the city’s incident response plan.

During the Aug. 19 incident, an emergency response truck was at the scene in 19 minutes, but it couldn’t do anything to clear the car since it was involved in a crash.

Related: ‘Worst commute of the summer’ stems from fragile system

Seattle Police called a tow, which didn’t get there for 90 minutes because it couldn’t get through the backup. The tow truck sat in traffic like everyone else.

Why couldn’t the driver turn on its flashing lights and move the traffic?

It turns out that tow trucks can’t use their lights to move traffic. Under state law, tow trucks can only use their lights once at an accident scene. It is illegal for them to use their lights when traveling to or from a scene.

“They aren’t equipped with a siren, first of all,” state trooper Rick Johnson explained. “And they aren’t trained to operate an emergency vehicle.”

Incident Response Team truck drivers, for example, can use their lights because they go to the State Patrol driving school. Tow truck drivers do not and the state doesn’t want people without training trying to move traffic.

That said, the State Patrol can call for an expedited response, meaning tow truck drivers can hit their lights and drive slowly on the shoulder.

“If we really feel it’s necessary, we’ll say, ‘Have them use the shoulder,’ obviously not blast down the shoulder, to get them to the scene,” Johnson said.

Seattle Police did not say whether they have a similar expedited response protocol. The city agency responsible for the towing contracts did not respond to interview requests.

In the case of the Atlantic Street incident two weeks ago, it might not have helped because there is no shoulder on the viaduct. The tow truck could have been directed to go up the off-ramp at Atlantic to get to the scene faster, but that didn’t happen.

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