Since 2019, 136 first responders have been struck and killed while at an emergency scene or assisting the driver of a disabled vehicle.
This sobering statistic, which includes five deaths on Pennsylvania highways during that same three-year period, helped inspire the state to strengthen its Move Over Law in April to increase penalties for motorists who fail to comply with the regulation.
The new law, which contains other changes to ensure highway safety, requires motorists to move over to another lane or to slow down by not more than 20 miles per hour under the posted speed limit when approaching an accident scene or a disabled vehicle that has posted two warning notifications, according to Todd A. Leiss, Traffic Incident Management Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
Leiss, and police officers from Chester and Berks counties, were guest speakers at a recent meeting of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, which includes the Lebanon County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). The area’s MPO exists to conduct a continuing, comprehensive and cooperative process for transportation planning, programming and decision-making.
“On average, two responders are struck in the United States every day either through injury crashes, property crashes or fatality crashes,” said Leiss during the Zoom meeting. “Forty-four emergency responders were struck and killed in 2019, 46 were killed in 2020, which set an all-time record, and so far in 2021, 46 first responders (were) struck and killed, including 19 police officers.”
The men and women who walk the blue line are especially in harm’s way while on duty along roadways, according to Leiss.
“Police officers are the highest discipline, then, who have been struck the past three years and that continues to be the case for these responders, who are struck every 1.5 days,” said Leiss.
In Pennsylvania, the problem of motorists causing additional accidents at an emergency or at the scene of a disabled vehicle is endemic across the state, and is especially bad in more populated areas.
“Statewide, it is a real issue,” said Leiss. “A lot of responders are struck in the south-central PA area and in the southeast. Obviously, the population centers are the place where we have responders struck but responders are being struck all over the state as indicated by the map.”
Pennsylvania Move Over Law (Act 105 of 2020) is explicit in what motorists are to do when approaching an accident scene or disabled vehicle with the appropriate number of posted warnings.
The law says: “When a driver approaches an emergency response area, he or she must safely merge into a lane farther away from the response area to pass the emergency response area at a speed of no more than 20 miles per hour less than the posted speed limit and reasonable for safely passing. An emergency response area is where an emergency vehicle has its lights flashing, or where road crews or emergency responders have lighted flares, posted signs, or try to warn travelers.”
Leiss noted that when the law was changed in April, one new provision addresses the speed at which a motorist must slow down to help ensure another crash is not created.
“If the posted speed limit is 55 miles per hour, I must slow down to a speed of between 54 to 35,” said Leiss. “We don’t want you going from 55, jamming on the brakes and slowing down to beneath 34 miles per hour because you are going to cause an accident. So that was one of the things they changed with the new law.”
Leiss said the revamped law brings increased penalties for violators.
“The penalties are now $500 for the first offense, $1,000 for the second offense, $2,000 for the third offense, and there’s also two points added to your license,” said Leiss.
The new law includes a 90-day suspension for a third or subsequent offense. The license suspension also applies to incidents that seriously injure or kill another person, and the suspension is for six months if the person injured or killed is an emergency service provider or was near a disabled vehicle.
The law sets additional fines of up to $10,000 for violators who injure or kill an emergency service responder or a person in or near a disabled vehicle, and fines are doubled for several traffic violations when committed in an emergency response area when first responders are present.
Leiss noted that when two warnings are posted, such as four-way flashers or other devices such as flares or cones, motorists must comply with the Move Over Law.
Within the past two years, police officers in Chester and Berks counties conducted educational and enforcement campaigns by setting up staged scenes to monitor how traffic responded when traveling past the mock scene.
In West Chester, the force decided to conduct educational campaigns before issuing citations. A total of three experiments were conducted using the existing signage along with the new verbiage to see exactly how it impacted driver behavior.
“Our thesis is that the current signage, ‘Emergency Scene Ahead,’ really didn’t tell drivers what to do,” said Daley. “After being on patrol for quite some time, we’ve all learned that drivers won’t do something unless you tell them exactly what to do.”
The department decided to create two new signs as part of their experiments to see if their thesis was indeed true. One sign read, “Move Over It’s the Law” while the other asked, “Did You Move Over?” with the latter being placed down the highway past the staged scene.
Officers conducted these experiments in West Chester and on a highway headed out of town containing multiple lanes to gauge if motorists would move to another lane when approaching the scene. A total of 64% moved over with no signage, and 68% moved over with the ‘Emergency Scene Ahead sign, noted Daley.
“When we placed the ‘Move Over’ sign, it jumped from 68% to 88%,” Daley said. “So there was a significant amount of compliance with the ‘Move Over’ sign. So our theory, we would like to think, and granted it was only two studies, but our conclusion is that the more direct verbiage was very helpful and told people to get out of the way, essentially.”
Daley recommended to the attendees that his department would like to see PennDOT start putting that message on its digital billboards across the state and not just on signs that would be placed before traffic approaches an accident scene.
Exeter Township police Sgt. Dave Bentz, in Berks County, said they conducted several educational and enforcement campaigns following changes to the law.
The first night the campaign was administered in Berks County, 38 motorists were pulled over and 13 citations were issued and 25 warnings written. Bentz noted the violations did not include speeding since speed was not being monitored during this first experiment.
“It was the officer’s discretion on how he felt how the person who committed the violation was and if they needed a ticket or if a warning would suffice,” said Bentz. “We clearly felt we didn’t have enough police officers that night, we ran out of officers fairly quickly.”
Additional enforcement efforts led to 28 citations being issued for failing to move over and those same 28 drivers receiving a second citation for a violation.
Two of the more disturbing facts in Bentz’s presentation showed that two motorists were clocked traveling in excess of 90 mph and one commercial motor vehicle driver will face charges for fleeing and eluding police who were working that detail.
The meeting concluded with an announcement that first responders can obtain various free training and collateral materials via the first responder website, and also that Leiss is driving statewide traffic management coordination efforts through penntime.com.
For more information or to become involved, visit the website.
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