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Hell on the Highway Facts

Before Interstate 80, the windy and narrow US 40 traversed Donner Pass. In the winter of 1952, a record snowfall made it more dangerous than usual. Donner summit is in the center.

Before Interstate 80, the windy and narrow US 40 traversed Donner Pass. In the winter of 1952, a record snowfall made it more dangerous than usual. Donner summit is in the center. (View larger version)

Photograph by Truckee Donner Historical Society/ Richard Joseph Personal Photo Collection

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  • Each day, an average of 17,000 vehicles pass along I-80 in the Donner Pass area, a number that easily triples during peak times, such as weekends, holidays and during times of snow.

  • The average annual snowfall on Donner Summit is 34 feet. During the 2010-2011 winter season, 61 feet of snow fell in the region.

  • Dependable Towing's "Big Pete" tow truck is actually a Peterbilt Model 379 Class 8 truck, with a 35-ton hydraulic wrecker designed to lift up to 70,000 pounds (the equivalent of nine elephants).

  • The Peterbilt Model 379 truck is Autobot leader Optimus Prime's vehicle (disguise) form, in the "Transformers," live action film series. Three modified Peterbilt 379's were featured in the 2007 film.

  • In 2009, there were 3,081 traffic fatalities in California, or .95 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. In 2010, there were 2,520 traffic fatalities in the state, the lowest number since 1933.

  • In response to an increasing number of roadside fatalities, 49 U.S. States (all but Hawaii) have enacted "move over" laws aimed at protecting emergency responders working along the roadside. Initially aimed at law enforcement vehicles, fire trucks and ambulances, some states are now expanding their move over laws to include hazard vehicles, such as tow trucks.

  • Tow truck drivers are often the first responders to roadway emergency scenes. Under the Freeway Service Patrol program in California, over 300 privately owned tow trucks are operated by drivers who have been trained and certified by California Highway Patrol to stabilize and protect the scene.

  • The International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee, estimates that 50 to 100 tow operators lose their lives in the line of service every year. In 2006, the museum unveiled a "Wall of The Fallen" memorial to honor those men and women in the towing industry who have lost their lives in the line of service.

  • Garage worker Ernest Holmes Sr. is credited with inventing the first "tow truck" in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1916. Inspired by a friend who needed help retrieving his wrecked car, Holmes converted his 1913 Cadillac into a wrecker by attaching three poles, a pulley and a chain onto the back of it. Holmes quickly patented his invention, and the towing industry was born.

  • Chattanooga, Tennessee is home to the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum. The museum maintains a wide variety of antique wreckers and equipment, tools, toys, collectibles and photos, along with a "Hall of Fame" and a "Wall of the Fallen" memorial.

  • With a whopping load capacity of 70 tons, the world's largest mechanical wrecker is the Holmes W70. Only four of these were ever built, and only one remains in existence today. Built in 1953 and nicknamed "Dad," the restored giant lives at the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum in Chattanooga, TN.

  • The world's fastest wrecker clocked in at over 130 mph at the Talladega Speedway in 1979. (Holmes 440 High Power model).

  • The world's oldest known towing vehicle that exists today is a converted 1913 Locomobile with a red model 1919 Holmes 485 wrecker.

  • Today, the world's largest manufacturer of towing and recovery equipment is Miller Industries, based out of Chattanooga, TN.

  • Donner Pass is named after the ill-fated "Donner Party" that became trapped in the Eastern Sierras during the winter of 1846-1847. Comprised of emigrant families heading to California, the Donner party was behind schedule with winter fast approaching when they took the ill advice of a trail guide and opted to take a lesser known, less traveled road they believed would be a "short cut." However, the route proved to be treacherous and difficult to navigate, putting them even further behind. They became snowbound by an early winter storm, which set in while they were camping near what is now known as Donner Lake.

  • Of the 80 to 90 members of the Donner Party, only about half survived their arduous trek. Approximately two-thirds of the women in party survived, whereas two-thirds of the men, including all of the single adult men, perished.

  • During WWII, the Ernest J. Holmes Company made 7,238 "W45" wreckers which were exported internationally for use in General Patton's "Red Ball Express." The Red Ball Express ran 24 hours a day from the beaches of Normandy to the front lines in order to keep the U.S. troops supplied with food, fuel and ammunition.

  • While most people use the term "tow truck" to refer to any type of towing or recovery vehicle, technically a "tow" truck is one that is capable of towing or hauling a vehicle, whereas a "wrecker" truck has the capability to recover vehicles.

  • "The Florida Tow Show," hosted by the Professional Wrecker Operators of Florida, is the largest international towing exposition, attracting exhibitors and attendees from all over the world.

  • In 2009, California revised its Move Over Law to include CALTRANS flashing amber light vehicles, in an effort to help protect roadside crews in the line of duty.

  • Each hour, over $1 million in commerce moves along the I-80 in Donner Pass.

  • When CHP dispatches a "Code 13," they are looking for all tow companies in the area to respond with all their trucks and drivers to clear all vehicles. They do not need to wait for their time in the CHP rotation. This would be the equivalent of a tow truck 911. This type of call may occur during a snowstorm where the road is completely closed.

  • The Towing and Recovery Association of America, Inc. is the national towing association of the United States and is estimated to include more than 35,000 towing businesses in the U.S., along with members in Canada, England, Australia, the UK, Hong Kong and Japan.

  • Women of the Towing and Recovery Association of America, an affiliate of the TRAA, was established in 1981 in order to support women in the towing industry, provide financial aid to TRAA and grant scholarships to children of towing professionals.

  • "Sierra Cement" is the nickname given to the particularly wet, heavy, dense snow that is typical of the Sierra Nevada mountain range system.

1 comments
Ann Keil
Ann Keil

I remember the days when Donner would routinely be closed in major snowstorms.  If you had plans which called for going over "the hill" [as it was known], you always checked to see if there were plans to close the Pass.  One year, in December right after Christmas when Donner had been closed, I ran Donner on my way back to college in Reno.  About 20 miles west of Truckee, I was blinded by the early morning sun, and pulled over to the side of the road to clear my windshield, only to be hit three times in the space of less than 10 minutes by equally blinded drivers!  Growing up in the Sierras made you appreciate the hardworking highway workers who ran the plows trying to keep the roads safe.