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TAYLORSVILLE — One in seven firefighters and police officers who die in the line of duty are killed in vehicle-related incidents, according to the Utah Highway Patrol.
“Every time we go on the freeway, it’s one of the most dangerous things we can do,” Draper Fire Deputy Chief Bart Vawdrey said Tuesday.
Two days after Christmas last year, Vawdrey was responding to a minor traffic accident on I-15 in wintry conditions.
“I ended up being the first apparatus on scene,” he said during a press conference at Utah Highway Patrol headquarters to highlight the Federal Highway Administration’s National Traffic Incident Response Awareness Week.
As Vawdrey checked on the driver with minor injuries, he heard a tire squealing.
“I happened to look over, and a car was coming in backward,” he said.
It was spinning toward him at about 50 miles per hour.
“I got hit and thrown about 30 feet,” Vawdrey said.
He crawled to the side of the road and radioed for help. He had a badly injured upper and lower body.
“I was out of work, I believe, 75 days,” he said.
That’s why first responders in Utah need all drivers to stay focused behind the wheel, as every year hundreds of emergency responders experience close calls, or are struck and either injured or killed while responding to such incident scenes.
Bryce Bullock now works dispatching tow trucks rather than driving one because a car slammed into him in Spanish Fork Canyon. He had just pulled a car out of the ditch, he said.
“As I was unhooking the car, another vehicle hit the front of my tow truck, which then slammed into me,” Bullock said. He broke his femur and decided his towing career was over, at least out on the road.
“You have a barrier, a car width, and then the freeway is right there,” he said, describing the amount of space available roadside on I-15. “That’s not a place you want to be. That’s scary.”
UHP Sgt. Cade Brenchley agrees. He’s been hopping out of his car on the side of the road for for 15 years. He was hit by a sliding car in snowy Sardine Canyon in March 2018.
“Stepping out of my car, that’s the last thing I remember,” he said. “Everything went black. I was obviously knocked into the air as people can see from the video.”
That video went viral. He said he was unconscious for six or seven seconds.
“I woke up face up with a big car wheel right to the side of my head,” he said. He broke four ribs and a shoulder blade. For about a half-hour, no one was sure if he’d make it.
“It was scary for them,” he said of his wife and four kids. “Much more so for them than for me,” he said, adding drivers need to say alert for lights of activity on the side of the road.
“Expect the unexpected,” UHP Col. Mike Rapich said. “Try to keep the people out there safe who are trying to keep you safe.”
Nineteen troopers were hit last year, in or out of their patrol cars, and already 10 have been hit this year. Police officers worry plenty about the dangers they face when pulling over criminal suspects, but the chances of being hit by a motorist at the side of the road is just as real. Motorists are just as likely to be in danger at these scenes, too.
“When they see flashing lights, when they see first responders out there, remember everybody has a responsibility to slow down, make sure we know what’s going on, be safe and take a little extra time getting through an incident safely so we don’t cause a much more significant incident,” said Rapich.
Many drivers remain unaware of the “Move Over” law, he said, and the risk they present to emergency responders when they enter an active traffic incident area. Utah law requires drivers to slow down and move over.