Approaches to 'Move Over' Laws Vary from State to State
Differing laws and procedures protect roadside responders

Updated: September 1st, 2006 02:43 PM PDT

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Facing danger is not new for emergency responders. But while attending roadside emergencies, police, firefighters and EMS find their safety jeopardized at times they may least expect. Consequently, forty states and counting have adopted 'move over' laws that require motorists to modify their driving behaviors when approaching public safety personnel.

Demand for such legislation has often come in the wake of tragedy. For example, "Scott's Law" took effect following a December, 2000 incident when Chicago Fire Department Lt. Scott Gillen was killed when a car crushed him against a fire truck at an accident scene. Today, Illinois drivers who fail to yield to emergency vehicles or cause accidents or injury to public safety or service personnel at roadside emergency scenes can be fined up to $10,000 and have their licenses suspended up to two years.

A responder safety advocacy group called "Families for Roadside Safety" was founded by Lara Feinberg in the wake of two North Carolina highway troopers being fatally ran over by tractor-trailers while issuing citations in the span of twenty months. Public outcry from the events spurred move-over laws with fines ranging anywhere from $25 to $250, according to her.

But some officials have doubts as to the effectiveness of these laws alone. A 2005 report by The Associated Press described increased concern within Tennessee law enforcement that the year-old move-over laws enacted statewide were not working. "Obviously, the law is not working just being out there," TDOT Commissioner Jerry Nicely had said in reference to two recent line-of-duty deaths.

Public Information Officer of the Missouri State Troopers, Lt. John Holtz believed likewise. "A lot of people claimed not to know laws exist despite TV and newspaper articles." he said.

One explanation may be the difficulty in enforcing the law. Responders handling an emergency are normally too occupied to hunt down violators. Firefighters and EMS lack the authority to do so. Many non-fatal violations go unreported.

Consequently, agencies have established sting operations to more properly enforce their laws. Florida, Georgia, and Missouri for example, routinely assign highway patrol agencies in pairs so that one officer can monitor ongoing traffic. Said Holtz of his state, "We would have overtime projects stopping vehicles for other reasons and we could have other troopers nearby."

Regarding variances in fines among agencies he added that motorists failing to move-over in Missouri could now result in charges of involuntary manslaughter. He also said, "If you had a steeper fine, it would probably have an impact."

Referencing drunk driving, Feinberg believed that fines for not moving over could succeed in deterring the action as well. "Scores of people read it and told their teenagers," she said. "It prompts word of mouth."

Still, enforcement of the move-over measures is not always a priority. David Daniels, who heads the Safety Health and Survivor Committee for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said, "I've never seen that law enforced. I've never heard of a person getting arrested."

This mentality addressed a second concern Feinberg had that public education is scant. Feinberg said that only "five or six" out of the forty states that have move-over laws actively advertise the statute. "[Government] just passes laws and it's presumed that the problem will go away," she stated.

Examples Feinberg cited of state implemented approaches to public education included billboards, commercials, bumper stickers on the backs of patrol cars and posters at the DMV.

Law enforcement in Tennessee planned such an approach. The Nashville Police and the TDOT said last year they were developing a plan aimed at getting roadside signs up within a year's time, according to the AP.

Since move-over laws are relatively new, there is little in the way of thorough research documenting the impact of such laws and varying approaches toward enforcing them.

Currently ten states lack any form of a move over law. In alphabetical order they are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a 2005 California legislature initiative, deeming it "unnecessary" on the grounds that forcing drivers to change lanes could pose additional risks in a state where traffic congestion levels are among the worst in the country.

Daniels of the IAFC also suggested move over laws have limitations by highlighting the role of personal responsibility among responders. "It's easy to blame others, but more often we're the intruder on normality", he said.