Helping truckers in trouble

By Mike Lewis
Eddie Smith, owner of Wrenches & Wreckers, poses with one of a rotator-style wrecker at his business in Hagerstown, Md. The boom of the wrecker can rotate and move up and down, similar to a crane’s boom, to lift semi-tractors and trailers at wreck scenes.

In an area criss-crossed by interstates, assisting when a big rig crashes can be rewarding — and lucrative.

By Mike Lewis
mlewis@crossroadsbizjournal.com

The Crossroads Business Journal area is peppered with dealerships, repair shops, truck stops and other businesses that serve the trucking industry.

Some of those businesses, like Wrenches & Wreckers, help truckers who are in trouble.

“Ninety-nine percent of our customer base is trucking companies,” said owner Eddie Smith. “We help with any problem truckers may encounter when they’re on the road.”

Those problems can range from clearing severe wrecks, to fixing minor mechanical problems, to tugging big trucks out of tight spots on rural roads.

For example, Smith said the business recently was called to an area warehouse where buckets had spilled off their pallets inside a semi-trailer. The loose buckets could not be unloaded at the warehouse. Smith said Wrenches & Wreckers saw to it that the buckets were restacked, rewrapped and reloaded so they could be delivered.

In more severe and messier situations, it’s not unusual for clean-up and recovery costs to climb into five figures, Smith said.

The costs

There’s also a human toll.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 11.8% (4,079) of the 34,439 fatal crashes on the nation’s roadways in 2016 involved at least one large truck or bus. That year there were an estimated 7.24 million nonfatal wrecks, and 537,000 of those (7.4%) involved at least one large truck or bus.

The cost of those crashes can be complex to measure, because the figures can include costs of liability and litigation. One study estimated that semi-truck crashes cost $20 billion per year in accident settlements, with about half of that amount awarded to injured victims who suffered a diminished or lost quality of life.

When it comes to tow bills, the policies and rates can vary by state.

In 2017, for example, the West Virginia Public Service Commission’s rates for what is termed “super heavy duty towing” could range up to $1,000 per hour, not including additional labor and other related expenses.

Wrecks also cause the unmeasured but real losses companies incur because the materials and employees they need are stuck in traffic.

In September, Smith and Ron Myers of Pine Tree Towing and Recovery in eastern Ohio, came to a meeting of the Hagerstown/Eastern Panhandle Metropolitan Planning Organization to tout training and equipment that can limit traffic delays and improve safety for those working at wreck scenes.

They said there are few regulations for tow truck operators. But they said tow truck operators could be trained in best practices that allow traffic to flow while they do their work. And they said companies could invest in equipment — such as heavy-duty, crane-like trucks and large airbags — that clear truck wrecks more efficiently.

‘I was a truck driver’

Smith’s business has locations in Hagerstown, Md., and Martinsburg, W.Va.

“We do truck repairs in West Virginia, and we do trailer repairs in Hagerstown,” Smith said.

Having locations in each county also keeps the business on the police wrecker-call lists in each region, he said.

Smith, who grew up in Clear Spring, Md., said he criss-crossed the country behind the wheel of a truck himself, so he knows what drivers face.

“I was a truck driver. … I understand trucking,” he said.

He started Wrenches & Wreckers in July 2009.

“I bought two wreckers from a business in West Virginia that had been sold,” he said. “Now I’ve got, like, 20 of us, counting myself (on the payroll).”

The business also has six heavy wreckers, including two with rotating, crane-line booms that can lift semi-tractor and trailers. It also has four service trucks and three semi-tractors.

“We’re heavily geared up for recoveries,” he said.

The business employs heavy-duty airbags, Smith said by way of example. Those airbags can be positioned strategically then inflated to gently roll a vehicle or trailer back onto its wheels without having to unload the cargo.

The airbags, rotator wreckers — and the employee training that goes with them — is all designed to clear the roadways as quickly as possible and to limit delays on those roads.

For example, to clear some wrecks a traditional wrecker has to block the entire width of an interstate, closing it to traffic. A rotator wrecker can do the same job while parked parallel to traffic, meaning one lane can remain open.

Or take the example of a semi-truck that has run up on a guard rail. Workers can use a wench to pull the truck off the rail, Smith said, but that risks causing more damage to the vehicle. The rotator wrecker can lift the truck, swing it around and set it down on the road.

“It’s proven. The police love it,” Smith said. “… It’s still a new thing for our area. It’s not a new thing industry-wide.”

‘Adrenaline rush’

Given the high percentage of truck traffic on the region’s interstates, Smith said no two jobs are ever the same. He also admits there’s a bit of a charge that comes with facing a challenging task.

“You get a little adrenaline rush out of it, I guess,” he said.

The way Smith looks at it, keeping the roads open — and doing it safely — is something of a public service.

“If you do that, the money comes. … I like going to a job where you get to help people,” he said.

But he also acknowledged that all the equipment and training requires capital.

“I’ve got my whole life invested in this thing,” he said.