Thursday, October 28, 2010

Flashing red or blue lights say 'move over'- New law requires drivers to change lanes or slow down

My Sun colleague and weather wizard Frank Roylance went driving recently on U.S. 50 in Talbot County when he had one of those learning experiences most of us would prefer to avoid.

He noticed two state police cars with flashing blue lights on the right shoulder of the highway, apparently making a traffic stop. He was in the right lane and stayed there, maintaining the prudent 56 mph set on his cruise control.

It was right after that that he noticed those lights coming up behind him. An officer motioned him to pull over.

"The trooper came back to my car and asked me, 'Do you know why I pulled you over?' I said I had no idea," Roylance recounted.

The trooper explained that Roylance had just run afoul of a new law, which took effect Oct. 1 and has been woefully underreported by myself and others, requiring motorists to move over by a lane or to slow down when passing an emergency vehicle on the side of the road with its red or blue lights on.

Fortunately, the trooper let my colleague, who hadn't heard of the law, drive off with a warning. But the trooper explained that Roylance could have been issued a ticket carrying a $110 fine and two points. Had the trooper really wanted to be a hardliner, he could have doubled that by writing a ticket for each of the police cars that were passed.

Roylance figured other motorists might want to piggyback on the benefit of his warning. So here's the story:

The General Assembly, after several years of rejecting the idea, passed legislation without dissent last spring adopting what is known as the "move-over" rule. Maryland became one of the last three states to enact this law, which is intended to protect emergency workers.

Specifically, the law says that unless a motorist is otherwise directed, a driver on a road that is wide enough should merge left when there is an emergency vehicle with flashing lights on the shoulder ahead. If traffic won't allow the driver to merge before reaching the scene, the law calls for slowing to a "reasonable and prudent" speed that takes into account weather and road conditions.

The law does not spell out what "reasonable and prudent" is, but Roylance's report that he was stopped at 56 mph on a 55-mph road indicates that officers interpret that as something below the speed limit. (Mindful of his experience, when I subsequently found myself in the same position and unable to merge left on Interstate 95, I slowed to about 45 mph and attracted no law enforcement attention.)

The "reasonable and prudent" standard is a subjective one that leaves a lot to the officer's discretion, but that's no different from a general speeding charge that has been on the books for eons. If a judge believes the officer's testimony, you can be convicted with or without a radar reading.

Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said a driver who is speeding in the lane adjacent to the traffic stop faces the possibility of receiving separate tickets for the two violations. He said that in some cases, officers keep their radar on while writing another ticket. Thus, somebody cruising along obliviously at 80 mph while passing just feet from a traffic stop or medical emergency could face a double whammy.

Shipley said the legislation was passed with strong support from police and other emergency response workers from around the state. Little wonder. According to the Department of Legislative Services, more than 150 law enforcement officers have been killed nationwide at roadsides when struck by vehicles over the past decade.

One reason officers want drivers to move over and slow down is the tendency of rubberneckers to fix their eyes on the traffic stop, Shipley said.

"As driving instructors will tell you, you tend to steer toward what you're looking at," he said.

The legislation's prime sponsor, Del. James Malone, is a retired Baltimore County fire lieutenant with 35 years of professional and volunteer experience. The Arbutus Democrat said the way some people drive by emergency vehicles "literally scares you to death."

"You'd be amazed how many people pay no attention to fire apparatus, medic units, police cars," he said. "They are literally flying by at 90 mph."

Roadside safety is a matter that emergency and law enforcement workers feel strongly about, Shipley said. "This is their office. This is where they work."

Shipley said he knows of no written policy that specifies that motorists will receive only warnings for a particular period of time. Whether to give a ticket or warning is up to the officer's discretion, he said.

According to Malone, the purpose of the law is education, not punishment. He's hoping that over time it becomes second nature for Maryland drivers to move over when they see an emergency vehicle on the side of the road.

"I want to make sure everybody knows it's the law," he said.

One detail worth knowing is that the penalty for a violation that causes a crash is three points and $150 — $750 if it leads to death or serious injury.

Malone said an earlier version of the legislation that would have added the same protection to highway workers was amended out of the bill to overcome some lawmakers' reservations. But he indicated that that provision could be added at some future time.

Let's hope it is. Highway workers deserve the same protection as others.

The best strategy is to get used to moving over or slowing down for flashing yellow lights the same way drivers now must for blue. Though it's not the law now, it probably will be soon.

Consider this your warning.

By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

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