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January 10, 2017

Highway 401: Smash hit? 401 tow drivers focus of new reality series


Dan Brown / London Free Press

You don’t have to tell Southwestern Ontarians that driving the Highway 401 can be hair-raising.

Dangerous pileups, including some of the worst in Canadian history.

Speed demons and left-lane bandits.

Winter storms and white-knuckle conditions.

Deadly crashes, delays, lane closings and fly-away truck wheels.

Now, Canadians nationwide are getting a taste of what London-area drivers know about the country’s busiest superhighway, with a cable TV reality series following the exploits of 401 tow-truck operators.

Discovery Channel’s Heavy Rescue 401 hit the small screen this week, screaming its way in promos about the nearly half a million vehicles a day that travel the 401.

It’s an inherently dramatic milieu, but did Sarnia’s Gary Vandenheuvel — who owns Preferred Towing, along with his wife, Tammy — ever think there’d be a show about him doing his job?

“I never really expected that one to come around,” he said. “It just happened.”

Preferred runs 14 trucks with a crew of 11.

The show’s creator, Mark Miller, is the producer behind another Discovery program, Highway Through Hell, which tells the story of a British Columbia operator who helps pull truckers out of ditches in that province’s interior, keeping icy roads open.

Aiming to a do a spinoff about the 401, Miller heard through the tow-truck grapevine about Preferred Towing.

“The phone rang and they said, ’Would it be OK for us to come down and talk to you and look at things?’ ” Vandenheuvel said. “They were looking to put a new series together.”

Just this week, the 401 was closed near Woodstock for hours after a major collision in which a tractor-trailer struck another vehicle, then six other vehicles hit the debris that rained down.

Three people were taken to hospital.

Longtime Southwestern Ontarians can remember especially deadly runs on the 401, like a generation ago when there were so many crashes — many of them median-crossover collisions — that the western stretch from London to Windsor became known as “Carnage Alley.”

In September 1999, an 87-vehicle pileup on the 401 in dense fog near Lakeshore, in Essex County, killed eight people and injured dozens. Fires from that disaster so intense, they melted the highway’s asphalt.

Most of the filming for the new series was done last January, February and March. Typically, that’s when the worst of winter pounds the highway, though not necessarily last year.

“It was probably one of the more docile winters,” Vandenheuvel said. “Some good things happened, in our industry anyway, and they were able to put it together.”

Fittingly, the episodes have titles like Shock and Awe and War Zone. The catchphrase for the series is “Closure is not an option.” But as anyone know who’s sat fuming in stalled traffic on the 401 for hours, or who lived through 2010’s Snowmaggedon, that’s a bit of reality-show hype.

On a typical call, a film crew of two or three would shadow Vandenheuvel. A bigger wreck would call for maybe six camera operators, plus sound crews and directors.

Vandenheuvel quickly adjusted to being followed around.

“They were really good. At first, you were looking over your shoulder and you knew that they were there. You learned to work with them,” he said. “They are professionals.”

The seasoned tow-truck driver said one of the reasons he agreed to do the show was the opportunity to work on a positive portrayal of his profession.

“That was one of the big things. When they came to us, that was a big thing to us — that they want to portray our industry in a good light,” he said. “We don’t always get shown in a good light,”

And even though every day on the 401 is inherently unpredictable, he said he’s happy with how the show turned out.

“We’re able to kind of portray what we do out there and what happens out there,” he said.

As for a second season, it’s not like the 401 suddenly will become any less busy.

“It does kind of make sense if you look at it,” Vandenheuvel said of basing a reality show on the 401.