Why we must move ‘Move Over’ up the agenda

As law enforcement officers continue to be killed on our nation's roadways, we must continue to message about the importance of “Move Over” laws

On Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, emergency services responded to the scene of a vehicle crash on the northbound lanes of Interstate 27 in Lubbock, Texas. While working at the scene, Lieutenant David Hill, another firefighter and a police officer were hit by a passing vehicle.

Lieutenant Hill and the firefighter were immediately transported to the hospital, where Lieutenant Hill passed away from the injuries he sustained. The other firefighter was initially listed in critical condition and the police officer died at the scene.

I thought this tragic event alone was going to be the basis of my move over article and commentary, but sadly this one case is not a one-off. In the first two weeks of 2020, seven first responders were hit and killed while doing their jobs on roadways across the country. 

Every state now has move over laws on their books, generally requiring drivers to give a one-lane buffer to stopped emergency vehicles.
Every state now has move over laws on their books, generally requiring drivers to give a one-lane buffer to stopped emergency vehicles. (Getty Images)

Sadly, roadway incidents have continued to claim the lives of officers. On October 2, 2021, Memphis police officer Darrell Adams was struck by an 18-wheeler while responding to a crash on the interstate. On October 11, 2021, Sgt. Michael Rudd was killed after he exited his cruiser after a pursuit and was struck by a commercial vehicle in Arizona. 

Speed, intoxication, distraction: Crash causation

More than 150 law enforcement officers have been killed since 1997 after being struck by vehicles along America's highways. Traffic-related incidents, including vehicle crashes, are one of the leading causes of death for law enforcement officers. There are weekly stories of tow truck drivers being struck while engaging in vehicle recovery from our highways. This is all a tragedy and, while I suspect not completely preventable, steps must be taken to reduce risk and ensure the safety of our public safety workforce.

For a sobering view of the sheer number of issues, visit the Facebook page of the National Move Over Day where they collate news stories that demonstrate there is an epidemic of first responder injuries, near misses and deaths on our nation’s roadways.

Every state now has move over laws on their books, generally requiring drivers to give a one-lane buffer to stopped emergency vehicles. These laws require drivers approaching stationary emergency vehicles that are displaying flashing lights – including wreckers or utility vehicles displaying flashing lights traveling in the same direction – to vacate the lane closest if safe and possible to do so, or to at least slow down. Some states also include municipal vehicles, utility vehicles and DOT vehicles displaying flashing lights as well. Individual state laws can be found here.

While the laws may be in place to assist with the safety of those who must respond to and on our highways, the death and injury toll keeps rising. The question, therefore, is what we can do?  Before we get to the takeaways, a small examination of crash causation may provide some clues.

  • Distracted driving. Distracted driving is the most common cause of road accidents in the United States. Nine percent of fatal crashes in 2017 were reported as distraction-affected crashes, and every year this surpasses speeding, drunk driving and other major accident causes. Some of the leading causes of distracted driving accidents include using a cellphone while driving. From 2017 data, a total of 434 people died in fatal crashes that involved cell-phone-related activities as distractions.  Additionally, distraction was caused by eating food or drinking from a mug or bottle while behind the wheel. Data from 2017 also indicated there were 599 non-occupants (pedestrians, bicyclists and others) killed in distraction-affected crashes and, as we know, some of these were first responders.
  • Speed. Motor vehicle accidents that involve speeding are also a major cause of fatal road injuries. Driving above the speed limit is a common practice for many motorists. Even a small increase in speed can result in a much higher risk of being involved in a collision or other type of accident.
  • Intoxication. All 50 states have a .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit, above which drivers are driving while under the influence of alcohol (DUI). For many motorists, even a small amount of alcohol can be enough to produce a significant increase in accident risk.
  • Reckless driving. Speeding, changing lanes without looking, tailgating other motorists and ignoring road signs are all classic signs of reckless driving. It is an illegal driving habit, often performed in combination with DUI, by an intoxicated motorist impatient to get to their destination.
  • Weather. It may not come as a surprise to many readers who have spent their fair share of time responding to highway incidents and accidents, but rain is one of the leading causes of traffic incidents. Wet weather driving risks are often amplified by poor car maintenance, such as tires that don’t provide a deep enough grip or aren’t properly inflated. Because of the safety risks associated with driving in intense rain, it’s important to be alert and aware of road conditions, speed limits and traffic during rainy weather.

Roadside safety takeaways and to-dos

As has been said about the opioid crisis – we are not going to arrest our way out of this. The key is education, awareness, constant reinforcement and possibly, stronger legislation of the message:

  • Cell phone laws. Laws to at least keep the eyes off the phone and hands on the wheel do not exist nationwide. Positively, 20 states plus Washington, D.C., do prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. Additionally, 36 states and Washington, D.C., ban all cell phone use by newer drivers. There is an opportunity across half the country to at least regulate cell phone use on the move.
  • Increasing punishment. Additionally, the deterrence value of fines and incarceration could be affected via legislative change. Last year, Virginia enhanced the penalties for non-compliance with its existing move-over laws, increasing punishment for drivers who violate the existing VA Move Over law. Before the amendment, the first offense was a traffic infraction punishable by a fine of no more than $250, and a second offense punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor. The revision made all offenses reckless driving, and therefore a Class 1 misdemeanor.

    The impetus for Virginia’s legislative change came after the tragic death of Fire Lieutenant Brad Clark who was killed, and three other firefighters injured when a driver of a tractor-trailer drove into their fire truck as Clark and his crew assisted other drivers involved in an accident. Virginia’s law change was heroically championed by Lieutenant Clark’s widow, Melanie. From her tragedy came a change, but we should not wait till after the fact to create the conditions to enhance highway safety.

    The Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state and territorial highway safety offices that implement federal grant programs to address behavioral highway safety issues, maintains and updates a useful chart that identifies the current move over and distracted driving laws. If your state has a gap in its legislation, perhaps it’s time to lobby for change.

  • Education. Move over law education and enforcement campaigns are regularly delivered across the country (perhaps we could all rally under a National Move Over Day as described above). There are many resources available online to assist departments in creating their campaigns, including NHTSA and the (other) AAA: The American Automobile Association. Additionally, NHTSA administers over $500 million in grant programs annually. NHTSA awards grants for occupant protection, state traffic safety information systems, impaired driving countermeasures, distracted driving, motorcyclist safety, state graduated driver licensing laws and non-motorized safety. 
  • Traffic incident management (TIM). You should be familiar with the traffic incident management process and be a participant. TIM consists of a planned and coordinated multi-disciplinary process to detect, respond to and clear traffic incidents so that traffic flow may be restored as safely and quickly as possible. Effective TIM reduces the duration and impacts of traffic incidents and improves the safety of motorists, crash victims, and emergency responders.

NEXT: Why Traffic Incident Management (TIM) programs keep cops safe

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