Gather a group of tow truck drivers together and John D, the “Tow Ninja,” will “crash” the party with cards, fliers and advice on road safety. Whether it’s an industry event, a workshop, a truck sale… John is there to spread the word that drivers, road crews and first responders are not alone, there’s a big network of fellow operators and agencies wanting to help them stay safe and alive on the job.
His concerns are not unfounded: two of these vital workers are struck by a driver every day. Every fifth day, one will die. He knows this first-hand: it nearly happened to him.
April 7, 2015 was a normal work day. John was part of a work crew at a water main repair on a closed street. At quitting time he stepped out of his backhoe to help remove the roadblock signs. He remembers hearing honking and he gestured to a driver to wait. The next thing he remembers is getting up from the pavement and chasing the driver on foot in “an adrenaline-fueled rage.”
It took three days before excruciating pain forced him to finally seek treatment. He had a fractured shoulder and, he later discovered, major neck injuries that left him with chronic headaches and arm pain and numbness. He left the hospital with a prescription for pain medication.
Years of sober living went out the window as prescription drugs triggered his return to purchased pills and then, heroin. Addiction, PTSD, estrangement from his family and homelessness followed. John thought he hit bottom. He was sitting by the high-speed rail tracks when a chance phone call came through. It was an offer for towing job answering police calls. For the sake of his daughters, he pulled himself together and sobered up. He got through the first week, and then the second. Slowly, painfully, The “Tow Ninja” was back, with a mission: safety.
“Advocating for this cause is my purpose on this planet,” he decided.
He attended industry events to share his story. He had “Slow Down Move Over” cards designed and printed for his home state Pennsylvania’s driver laws. As Towninja68, he creates and posts safety videos and memes to TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, and he is constantly working the phone reaching out to the media to promote state and local Traffic Safety Management courses and peer groups such as ResponderSafety.com and the Tow Op Family.
The towing industry is a close-knit community and as a driver himself, John’s especially concerned about his fellow towers. Last year 22 tow operators lost their lives on the job. He wants every driver to know about the Tow Op Family. A members-only social media group, they use apps such as Zello and Life360 to keep track of each other. From Maine to California and everywhere in between, help or just advice is a click away.
Zello’s push-to-talk system works like a two-way radio in the tow cab. “If a new operator just starting out gets into a pickle they are able to ask a question,” explains John. “Then someone with more experience or that has run into the same situation can walk the operator through the issue.”
Life 360 adds another layer of communication across the country. The group location sharing app features real-time crash detection and live support emergencies. Members logged in appear on screen and can be tracked within the app.
“We use it to do an overwatch if an operator is in a sketchy situation, such as adverse weather or a blind hill or curve. Once they call for an overwatch, an Admin or Moderator pulls up their ‘bubble’ on Life 360 and radio silence begins within the Zello channel.” That Administrator or Moderator on duty can summon emergency crews or services to the scene. If the operator leaves the conversation without a sign off or fails to respond, local authorities are notified.
John is determined that every driver, every first responder, every road crew worker knows that there is support and training available to help them avoid what happened to him. He’s now working on a national Slow Down Move Over focus group and a driver emergency fund to support operators and their families after an accident.
“John is a tireless advocate of the Move Over Law and Emergency Responder Safety,” says Todd Leiss, Traffic Incident Management Coordinator in Pennsylvania. The two have appeared on talk shows together and created a regional radio campaign for Slow Down. “John’s passion has led to hundreds if not thousands of motorists and responder learning more about roadway safety.”
John is looking ahead. “My hope for the future is that the general public realizes that tow truck drivers have feelings and family that love us and to, please, Slow Down and Move over for all flashing lights on the shoulder! That may be your son, daughter, mother or father stranded and in danger.”
“Never give up no matter how hard things get or seem. There is always someone there to listen you just got to open up and believe, there is always a positive solution to a negative situation.”