Starting Sunday, the flashing amber lights atop tow trucks and other emergency vehicles won't just signal a broken-down car. They also will signal it's time for you to move over.
One year after New York's Move Over Law -- designed to protect police and other emergency personnel on roadside calls -- was enacted, an amendment will go into effect Jan. 1 that is intended to protect tow-truck drivers and certain construction and state transportation vehicles.
The new amendment expands the law to include "hazard vehicles," such as tow trucks, help trucks, highway maintenance trucks and any other vehicle being used in the construction or maintenance of roadways.
"Anyone who travels knows it can be pretty hairy out there," said Erik Ostertag, a Grand Island tow-truck driver. "People are in such a hurry nowadays, with so many things going on, that it's very easy to be distracted."
That distraction is evident to the area's state police, whose Thruway patrols have resulted in 699 tickets for violations of the Move Over Law in the last year.
Ostertag still remembers the early morning of April 2008, when he served as the backup tow-truck driver for Kevin Coffta of Clarence Center. Coffta was standing outside his flatbed tow truck shortly before 4:50 a.m. April 2 when a southbound SUV driven by a drunken driver drifted onto the shoulder and sideswiped the abandoned vehicle, then struck Coffta and his truck, state police said.
Coffta, who was working for Marty's Towing Service on Grand Island, was pronounced dead at the scene.
The initial law has made a "dramatic improvement" in the number of drivers who change lanes upon seeing a police cruiser, but tow-truck drivers are in an especially vulnerable position.
"The very fact that they're putting the cars that are disabled on the back of their tow truck also sometimes obscures the motorist from seeing or noticing them or paying attention," said Lt. David M. Denz, Acting State Police Zone 4 commander.
"Police cars and other emergency [personnel] -- we're out in front of our vehicle doing what we have to do, where the tow-truck operators, they're behind their vehicle and they're trying to crawl under cars to chain them up and get them on the lift, and so they can't always be monitoring the traffic behind them because they're still trying to do a job."
Some tow-truck drivers and construction workers have had their jobs -- and lives -- suddenly cut short roadside.
A Syracuse-area tow-truck driver was killed on the Thruway in Onondaga County in November while assisting a disabled vehicle driven by a Cattaraugus County man.
In November 2010, a tanker truck struck and killed a 27-year-old Hamburg man on the back of a truck painting lines on the southbound Niagara Thruway near Smith Street.
In 2007, a Fredonia tow-truck driver who was trying to move a vehicle off the Thruway was critically injured when a tractor-trailer rammed his truck.
Drivers who violate the Move Over law could be fined up to $275, plus a court surcharge of $85, and sentenced to up to 15 days in jail. The driver also could be assessed three points on his or her driving record, Thruway officials said.
If an entire lane of a construction zone is blocked off, Denz said, drivers can travel in the surrounding lanes, and will not have to move over two lanes.
"It's one of those things where it's gonna be in the back of your mind and the risk is still there," Ostertag said, "but anything to help us out and give us a little bit of a break makes it a lot easier, so it's not a constant [thought] where you get worried as soon as you get out of the truck."
Above all, Denz said, motorists should use common sense.
"Instead of waiting for the last minute, when you first notice a vehicle on the side of the road, that's the time to move over, and at the very least slow down," he said.