NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — This year the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security reports 26 first responders have died on the state's roads.
It's a staggering statistic, and it's completely avoidable, officials said. TDOT reports an average of five of the department's trucks are hit every month. Other emergency responders like troopers, local firefighters, police officers, EMS, utility workers and tow truck drivers are also at risk.
"I call it an explosion. That’s what it sounded like," TDOT Help Truck Operator Scott Pendergast said of his experience of a driver hitting his truck. "There was an explosion, and my truck was gone."
Pendergast hopes his story is a sign for Middle Tennessee drivers to pay attention and move over.
"Five hours later I was still pulling glass out of my hair," he said, recalling the crash on Interstate 65 near Harding Place.
But that crash was just one of the eight crashes he's been involved in while working for TDOT.
It's a sign he says something is terribly wrong.
In a survey, AAA Tennessee found nearly one in five Tennessee drivers have been in a crash or in a near-miss with emergency vehicles on the side of the road.
Experts believed speed plays a major role. But even worse is driving distracted.
Pendergast said a huge part of the problem is that cell phones are in every car and with every driver, no matter their age.
"This is worse than any impairing drug I've ever seen in my life," he said, holding a phone.
Phones, conversations and passengers can all distract drivers from seeing Pendergast's flashing, bright yellow signs when he's helping a stranded driver.
The AAA survey also showed 18% of drivers did not know Tennessee had a Move Over law in effect. Law enforcement has taken notice as traffic picks back up from the pandemic.
This year, the Tennessee Highway Patrol has issued nearly 800 drivers with a Move Over ticket that can reach up to $500 for a first offense and result in a driver serving 30 days in jail.
"As traffic begins to increase, we do see more Move Over violations," THP Lt. Bill Miller said.
When drivers see emergency vehicles pulled over, the law requires them to move over to an adjacent lane. If they cannot safely move over, they must reduce their speed for the safety of those working.
But it's not only for first responders, drivers must move over for regular vehicles with their flashers on as well.
"The life you save may be your own," Lt. Miller said, pointing out how much worse secondary crashes can be, compared with the initial issue.
Pendergast, who lost colleague JR Rogers when he was hit on Christmas Eve in 2016, says he just wants people to acknowledge that he's there.
The issue got the attention of Gov. Bill Lee who issued a proclamation for this week to be known as Crash Responder Safety Week. Another way to try to bring attention to the problem is the hope of saving lives.
"I love what I do, I love helping people, I love helping the community in general," he said. "All of us want to go home at the end of the day."