Viewpoint: Why Insurers Should Care About Protecting Tow Operators From COVID-19

By Corey Brundage | March 24, 2020

When an accident occurs, the first in-person contact a customer will have with an insurer is probably from a tow operator. But these days, interaction with a tow operator through one’s insurer happens a lot more often now that nearly all insurers provide roadside assistance as a benefit. The top 10 largest auto insurers provide roadside assistance as an option, and for many young insurance companies, it’s included as part of the basic package. This is an important interaction, and increasingly, the most common in-person contact customers have with their insurer.

Corey Brundage

This interaction between customer and tow operator takes on a new urgency during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Operators meet with strangers every day, and In the face of this public health emergency, it’s critical that roadside assistance service providers take immediate measures to protect both their operators and motorists. Insurers have a strong interest in ensuring that their roadside assistance partners are taking proper precautions.

In the USA, Washington has been one of the states hardest hit by COVID-19. Alex Shopen, owner of ASAP Towing and its 19-truck fleet, calls the state home. His headquarters are in Vancouver, WA, and he takes safety seriously. Shopen has outfitted each truck with n95 respirator masks — most of which he already had on hand for use in painting his vehicles — gloves, Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer and Lysol.

“I tell my guys,” Shopen said, “You may look dorky wearing the gloves and mask, but if you get the virus you won’t be at work. You’ll be home sick. And to my young guys who think they’re invincible, I tell them, while you may not get symptoms, you could still have it, and that 80-year-old man or woman in your car might die if you don’t wear protective gear. Prepare yourselves.”

Shopen is not being paranoid, Tow truck operators interact with strangers on a daily basis, and many of them ride with the driver in the cab. Without widespread testing and the fact that asymptomatic people can be contagious, operators and the motorists they must assume that anyone could be a carrier, even if they aren’t coughing or suffering from a fever.

So check in with your roadside assistance and towing partners. Make sure that they’re taking proper precautions. Here are some best practices that every tow company should follow.

Sick operators must stay home: If operators have a dry, persistent cough or fever, they shouldn’t be on the road. They should be at home. They should also quarantine themselves if they’ve come into contact with someone who already has COVID-19 — the risk of spreading the virus while asymptomatic is just to great to continue working.

Operators must wash their hands before and after each job: Hand sanitizer is scarce, but ironically, it’s not the most effective way to combat the disease. Good old-fashioned soap and water is the best way to destroy the virus, so long as people scrub for at least 20 seconds. Hand sanitizer that is at least 62% alcohol is good in a pinch, but given that soap is more effective and much easier to find, encourage operators to keep a portable wash basin, water, soap and paper towels in the truck so they wash up when out on a service call.

Encourage operators not to touch their eyes, nose or mouth, which we all unwittingly do many times a day. It’s a hard habit to break, but it’s also a common vector of infection.

Disinfect trucks daily, and before and after each job: When sanitizing with Lysol, diluted bleach or some other cleanser, operators should pay particular attention to areas where operators and motorists are most likely to touch, such as the center console, door handles and steering. Also, if operators use personal electronics, manufacturers have said that it’s okay to clean phones, tablets and laptops with disinfectant wipes.

If available, use protective gear: No one should make a run on n95 masks or masks of any kind.Hospitals need them, and they are scarce. But if towing companies have them on-hand, they will need to train operators on how to use them properly. Disposable gloves are somewhat easier to find, but unless companies have them already, they should leave them for medical professionals. Discarded gloves after each service call.

Practice social distancing: Operators should not shake hands with motorists and should stay at least six feet away from other people at all times. This can be difficult to remember, but if motorists try to shake hands or move too close, operators should politely inform them that, in light of the pandemic, company policy requires social distancing for everyone’s benefit.

“We’ve had motorists who were coughing, but with limited testing, there’s no way to know whether it’s a cold or the virus,” Shopen said. “In a lot of cases, the motorists do cooperate and leave the vehicle unattended while we work.”

Also, each truck should have a supply of disposable pens that the operator can sanitize before giving one to a motorist. No one should be sharing pens.

Finally, operators should avoid allowing motorists to join them in the cab if possible, and if a motorist is showing symptoms, call local health authorities to determine how to best transport them. If an asymptomatic motorist must be given a ride in the cab, provide them with gloves, if available, and open the windows if weather permits. Immediately sanitize the vehicle once the motorist is dropped off.

Business has slowed down a bit in recent days for Shopen, but there are still plenty of motorists on the road who need his help. Especially in this time of crisis, motorists will appreciate and remember how well their roadside assistance call was handled and whether they felt safe. Insurers need to reinforce with their roadside assistance partners the importance of taking proper precautions to protect everyone during the coronavirus pandemic.

About Corey Brundage

Corey Brundage is chief executive officer of Honk Technologies, an on-demand roadside assistance platform for connecting motorists, towing professionals and insurance carriers, fleet management companies and automotive original equipment manufacturers.

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