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Bill Giorgis, vice president of TT Publications, looks at the Wall of the Fallen at the International Towing and Recovery Museum and Hall of Fame on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. This weekend at the Tennessee Tow Show, dozens more names will be added to the wall that honors members of the towing industry who were killed in the line of duty.

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Towing experts talk safety on first day of Tennessee Tow Show

For the fourth consecutive year, tow truck operators, owners and experts from all over are converging on Chattanooga — the Mecca and Coopers- town of the towing world — for the Tennessee Tow Show, which started Thursday and runs through Saturday at the convention center.

Events kicked off Thursday morning with instructional seminars and will conclude Saturday night with the annual hall of fame induction ceremony and dinner. In between there will be events honoring tow truck operators killed in the line of duty and gift presentations to the families of fallen operators.

Chattanooga is the birthplace of the commercial tow truck. Auto repairman and garage owner Ernest Holmes invented the mechanical, for-hire wrecker in 1916 after struggling six hours to fish a man's car out of South Chickamauga Creek.

The city is also home to the towing and recovery hall of fame, which started in 1986, and which inducts the industry's best, brightest and most influential every year.

And this weekend, the Tow Show will draw 2,000 to the city for a series of annual events.

But the weekend is not all fun for tow operators. There is the hanging of names on the wall of fallen operators on Saturday, a morbid reminder that tow truck safety isn't yet where it needs to be.

Industry experts talked Thursday at the International Towing and Recovery Museum on Broad Street about the current state of safety and what needs to happen going forward to prevent further loss of operators.

"We lose about an operator a week," said Jeffrey Godwin, chairman of the towing museum's Wall of the Fallen and member of the museum's Survivor Fund committee.

He said last year the industry lost about 60 operators, partly to roadside incidents and partly to normal hazards of the job.

Shannon Yates, vice president at Doug Yates and Recovery, said the threat of roadside injury is very real, and that "people nowadays don't pay attention."

An operator with Yates Towing and Recovery was hit while working on the side of the road earlier this year, he said.

"People just don't respond to yellow [vehicle] lights anymore," said Yates.

Going forward, industry leaders want to crack down on roadside deaths, by employing a variety of measures including education for operators and better enforcement of move-over laws for motorists.

"[Tow truck operators] are on the side of the road, and there are cars going by at 50, 60, 70 miles per hour," said Clarissa Powell, publisher of Tow Times trade publication.

She said all 50 states, including Tennessee, have adopted move-over laws forcing motorists away from stopped emergency vehicles on the side of the road.

The rules are largely acknowledged when police vehicles are stopped, she said. But, like Yates, Powell said motorists often ignore the rules when a vehicle with amber lights — like a tow truck — is stopped. And some move-over laws don't include tow trucks.

And tow trucks can not legally be equipped with flashing blue or red lights.

So industry officials and experts are taking measures to place more truck controls on the passenger side of newer trucks, where operators are away from traffic, and to request that police officers increasingly stay on-site when a wrecker preps a road-side vehicle for towing — including safety training seminars for operators during the course of the Tow Show.

But, said Powell, ultimately "our goal at this point is to start educating the public about motoring laws."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.

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