Gilroy Road Rescuers Risk Lives Daily

High up on Pacheco Pass, Danny Rubalcava, 33, has a few inches with which to work. Those few inches separate this Bracco’s tow truck driver from speeding semi-trucks, distracted teens on their cell phones and drunk drivers–or those who just rubberneck at accidents and cause others. It’s like fixing a tiger’s cage, from the inside.
But, that’s just part of the job and if an accident occurs, or a big rig is stranded, or a Corvette flies off the ledge and lands 100 feet below, it’s just an average day at the office for him to risk life and limb, to get people moving. Every day is something new. Different place, different wreck and different people.
Few think of it as one of the country’s most dangerous professions, but on average, a tow truck driver dies every week in the United States.
“At every single accident I could sit there on the side of the road and videotape people taping the accident with their phones,” Rubalcava, the 25-year-old company’s general manager, said. “On the side of the road is a dangerous situation every single time. You get secondary crashes because of rubberneckers.”
Rubalcava drives the king of the Bracco’s Towing fleet, a Kenworth T-880 Rotator, a 62,000-pound diesel mean machine of towing, capable of lifting 80,000 pounds. When the biggest job calls, like a semi-truck that’s gone over the side of Pacheco Pass, they call Rubalcava.
During half an hour on the shoulder of a busy highway, with traffic whizzing by at high speed, time seems to freeze. In that time, not one driver slowed down or moved over. Despite laws, such as one requiring drivers to “Move Over and Slow Down” at accident scenes, few people extend to tow truck drivers the same courtesy they may grant to police or firefighters. On the scene of an accident, when police and firefighters leave, tow truck drivers remain.
“People don’t slow down. Even if it’s wet, people don’t care,” Rubalcava said. “They don’t slow down and they don’t move over. It’s more of a hazard with all the mist and rain. They see the lights and they think ‘how cool that is,’ and they don’t pay attention.”
Dion Bracco, 59, owner and operator of Bracco’s Towing in Gilroy–and a city councilmember– has been in the business for over almost 40 years. Bracco still gets the rush of adrenaline when he arrives at a crash scene along with the other first responders. Like police and firefighters, tow truck drivers encounter significant dangers on the roadway but don’t get the same kind of courtesy from drivers. In fact, more tow truck drivers are killed on California highways than California Highway Patrol officers, fire professionals and Caltrans workers combined, he said.
“We help people every day, all day long,” Bracco said. “The most satisfying feeling is on a holiday when you got a family, with presents in the car and their car is broken down after hours and when you help them out and see the smiles on the kid’s faces when they drive away to grandma’s house, is very satisfying.”
With locations in Gilroy, Hollister and Morgan Hill, Bracco, a lifelong resident of Gilroy, who has served on the Gilroy city council since 2005, has built a towing business that boasts 15 trucks. As his business has grown over the years, hazards on the job remain.
“When I started driving Pacheco Pass was two lanes without any shoulder,” Bracco said. I had to constantly be looking out for what was coming down the road. I’ve had near misses. I’ve had to climb over the truck when somebody sideswiped the truck. People don’t watch. They don’t pay attention.”
To Bracco, distracted driving is worse now than ever before. Drivers talking on their phones or texting pose a significant risk to tow truck drivers on the job. Worse yet, curious drivers rubbernecking at accidents are a great danger.
At a crash scene, when police and fire professionals leave, tow truck drivers remain by themselves. While police are supposed to remain on the accident scene to look out for tow truck drivers, they rarely stay the entire time. Traffic laws designed to protect tow truck drivers are relatively lax. The Slow Down Move Over law requires a motorist to slow down or move to another lane whenever they are flashing police, fire, or tow truck lights. Efforts to strengthen the law to protect tow truck drivers have come up empty in California.
“Right now the fine is $45, so nobody really cares about it, Bracco said. “The state legislature passed a resolution to strengthen the law, but the governor (Jerry Brown) vetoed the law because it would pose a too much of a financial hardship to drivers. I wish they would come out here and see what we do.”
Bracco has been involved in the Move Over and Slow Down campaign for years. One of the ways he pushes awareness is by passing out shopping bags with the Move Over and Slow Down logo. Awareness usually doesn’t connect with people until they are told, face to face, about the risks that tow truck drivers encounter.
Bracco is also an active member of the California Tow Truck Association, an advocacy group that fights for two truck driver safety.
“It usually doesn’t click with people until someone tells them,” Bracco said. “Then they say ‘yeah, I never thought of that.'”
Typically tow truck drivers are not seen as emergency responders, said Vickie Young of the California Tow Truck Association. “It’s disappointing and hard to say why the fine is so low. For texting the fine is about $250. The safety of tow truck drivers is just as important and their lives are on the line every day.”
Often, with only inches of space to work with, Bracco tow truck drivers must think of their safety first. Rubalcava, as a rule, never turns his back to traffic.
“People are driving 80 or 90 miles an hour often only inches from you while you’re hooking up a car,” Bracco said. “There are times when we need to tell people they need to pull up to an offramp if they have a flat tire. Sometimes it’s just too dangerous.”
For Bracco, the customer’s safety is their priority. When they arrive on the scene, they place the customer in their truck cab for safety. In especially dangerous situations, they call another tow truck driver park nearby to provide additional protection. In their 25 years of business, Bracco’s Towing has not had any accidents. However, their record of safety is uncommon.
“Most of the company owners I know have lost drivers,” Bracco said.
Not all hazards for Bracco Towing drivers are because of distracted drivers. Often, when a driver gets their vehicle towed, they take their frustrations out on the tow truck drivers.
“We’ve had people follow us to the lot to get back their car,” Bracco said. “They break the law, but they blame us.”
For tow truck drivers the dangers associated with their jobs has helped to form a tight fraternity between drivers. In Chattanooga, Tennesee at the International Towing Museum, the names of hundreds of tow truck drivers who have been killed on the job are inscribed on the Wall of the Fallen. New names are added to the wall every year.
“It’s really a somber and sobering moment when you watch these families, mothers, fathers, wives and husbands when their loved one’s name is called,” Bracco said.