Robert and Danica O’Dell call their tow truck drivers “problem solvers,” and they had a lot of problems to solve this week, including some that they couldn’t completely.
The O’Dells, who own and operate O’Dell Towing and Roadside and Towmater Towing Service in Searcy, spoke to The Daily Citizen about what tow truck drivers have experienced out on Searcy streets and White County roads during last week’s ice storm and this week’s two snowstorms.
Robert gets out and makes calls when he is needed, especially in weather like this week’s. He said getting to the scene is difficult because that is what got their customers stuck in the first place and what his drivers have to drive through to get there. Typically, Robert said the most calls they have received were for “winch-outs.”
Holmes Road was a problem area where, Robert said, “there were even some times ... where we just had to say, ‘We will try to help you out but we can’t get your car out at this time.’ That road was a bad one until the roads got better.
“Most of the time we were able to get to them [the customers] and get the vehicle out. We would typically have them unstuck in 20 minutes.”
Questioned about whether cars or trucks had the most problem with getting stuck on the road or landing in ditches, Robert said “what we dealt with a lot were rear-wheel drive trucks and just regular sedans and cars.”
There were even situations this week, Robert said, where their own trucks got stuck on the road, trying to get to customers.
“When you have ice on top of snow and more snow, that’s what happens,” he said. “It’s not your typical weather that we deal with here so you know it’s bad when a towing company is getting their trucks stuck. It is bad that way but we just have to make due and figure out how to make it work.”
Robert and Danica said the reason they call their drivers “problem solvers” is because “everything that they get, as far as calls, is a problem.”
“We send that guy out there and he has to figure out how to solve that problem when he gets there,” Robert said. “We want them to know that is what we expect and that is what kind of results we expect.”
The five drivers the O’Dells employ go through training and are certified. Some of the training is online, but “once you get up to a certain level like operating the heavy wreckers and stuff, that’s all in person,” Robert said. “That way when we send somebody out, we know they aren’t going to tear up somebody’s car.”
A special license in Arkansas is not technically needed to operate a tow truck, he said, but background checks and drug tests are performed.
Even the best of drivers, though, encounter roads that are “unpassable,” like certain back roads in the county have been.
“If we got call after call after call on a certain road, we knew that we didn’t need to go down that road because if it’s so slick,” Robert said. “Even with our chains that we had – we had every truck outfitted with tire chains – there’s just certain situations that are just unsafe.”
He said the biggest mistake drivers make in getting out when the roads are like they have been this week is “getting out in it if you don’t have to, that is probably this first thing you shouldn’t do.”
Robert said that it is not the day of the bad weather when their tow truck companies are “super busy,” but the day after when more drivers venture out on the slick roads.
“The reason why is people assume the roads are better and that’s where they get going too fast and getting too confident, that’s where we see more wrecks than the day of the bad weather.,” Danica said, “because it is refrozen overnight.”
Robert said the second biggest mistake drivers make is that “people drive too fast. They don’t realize that going is not near the problem as stopping.”
Robert mentioned the 130-plus-vehicle pileup on Interstate 35 Texas on Feb. 11 in which six people were killed and dozen others were injured.
“It wasn’t a going problem. They had plenty of go. They were all doing 70 miles an hour down the freeway,” he said. “It was a stopping problem.
"Everything is great you can go, but when you hit ice, there is no stopping; it doesn’t matter how many wheels, how many four-wheel drive, eight-wheel drive, ... it ain’t going to stop.”
He said with two-truck drivers having to go out into those situations, “I’m sure you’re always going to have a little bit of anxiousness.”
Danica added, “Our dispatchers do a really good job of making sure that they are aware of what the situation is and where they need to be when they come to a stop.”
“Sometimes we have just been able to get the passengers on the highway,” she said. “It is not necessarily that we can make it safe to move that vehicle; it’s not safe for our driver right then, but as long as we are getting those passengers with those children out of the way, ... that had just happened in the last few days, and that is the No. 1 priority obviously.”
The O’Dells’ tow companies had fielded and responded to 250 calls for service this week as of Friday afternoon.
Robert said he thinks everybody says, “’Don’t go out if you don’t have to’ but I think people have become numb to that because you know they want a pizza. People driving too fast ... just because you can go that fast doesn’t mean you should.”
He said there have also been cases with some who want to go out and get their nails done in bad weather. “I’m not kidding,” he said. “The stories of why people were out would blow your mind.”
Despite the difficult-driving conditions, Robert said the accidents during this weather spell have not been as bad as they have been in the past.
“The winch-outs are what we are doing the most of. We wouldn’t do as much of those if people would just slow down,” he said. “On my way in today [Wednesday], I was driving on the freeway – the right lane was clear, the left lane was not. The people in the right lane were doing 45, which is a reasonable speed in this kind of weather. There was a guy that came by probably at 60 [mph] on a completely ice-covered left lane, passed everybody.
“It will be bad when people do this just like in Texas. When they have to stop and they can’t, it’s going to be bad. If you see them in the next ditch, there’s going to be an ambulance on the way soon. It’s not going to be, ‘We slid off in the ditch, oh crap, come get us out.’ What they don’t understand is that if somebody pulled out in front of them, it doesn’t matter. You have to worry about the other people on the road.”
Danica said she and Robert have talked often recently about how surprising it is to them that drivers don’t know to “just not use the brakes.”
“It’s a huge problem,” Danica said. “You are much better off to let off completely and if it is safe, to shift over to a grassy area, something like that, rather than to hit those brakes where you are spinning and losing control and hitting lots of other people in the process.”
Cruise control is another big concern on icy roads, Robert said.. “People will use cruise control when they think they are fine and then they hit that [black] ice and that’s when they will spin because the car doesn’t know it shouldn’t be given a gas speed and that’s where they get out of control, so people definitely don’t need to use cruise control.”
When asked if they ever had to respond to a fatal accident, Robert said “we only had one where they were in the car when we got there, that we beat the ambulance.” Danica said they do offer counseling to their employees and trauma therapy “if things like this happen.”