When the lights come on, move over, slow down

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Not many people make their living along the side of a busy roadway with traffic rushing by within a few feet of them.

About the closest experience that most of us have had to this was when we had to pull onto the shoulder of a road to fix a flat tire.

For law enforcement officers, standing near moving vehicles is a daily occurrence, and if you have ever experienced having an 18-wheeler pass within a few feet of you at highway speeds, you know where I am going with this. (For those who have never had that sensation, consider yourself lucky.)

A normal reaction when we see flashing lights ahead is to wonder, "What do I do?" or "What is going on?" The first response should be to begin reducing your speed. This situation can happen in a variety of settings including four-lane roads with 30 mph speed limits or the freeway at 60 mph.

Keep in mind that when a person is struck at 20 mph they have a 5 percent chance of dying, and at 30 mph those odds go up to 45 percent. At 40 mph, they go up to 85 percent.

The speed at which we pass emergency vehicles that are stopped beside the road can be critical for the safety of those emergency service providers.

If you are on a roadway with two lanes in each direction check to see if you can safely move to the lane farthest away from the emergency vehicle, which most of the time will be to the left, and proceed with caution.

If you are already in the lane farthest from the emergency vehicle, slow down and allow gaps so that other drivers can safely move into your lane.

This action is commonly known as the "move-over law", which was enacted in 2007 and is the law in nearly every state.

An enhancement, to take place in January 2011, is intended to establish an "emergency zone" of 200 feet on both sides of stationary emergency vehicles, which includes tow trucks, ambulances, roadside assistance vehicles and law enforcement vehicles.

Unfortunately, since this law was enacted, the number of collisions has gone up.

In the last three years, the Washington State Patrol alone has had 57 collisions that involved troopers, and most of those were in broad daylight.

In the same time period, nationwide, nearly 200 tow-truck drivers were killed while assisting motorists on the side of the road.

When a law enforcement officer decides to pull a traffic violator over, one of the first considerations is to anticipate a safe location to make the stop before turning on the overhead lights.

After dark the officer will look for a wide spot in the road, preferably with good lighting.

If you are being pulled over, please keep that in mind, and don't be surprised if the officer goes to the passenger side of the vehicle to make contact. This is for their safety.

The fine in Washington State for violating the move-over law is $124, but if we just slow down and move over, everyone wins.

Capt. Gary Bainter is Patrol Division commander for the Walla Walla Police Department. He can be reached at gbainter@ci.walla-walla.wa.us or 524-4372.

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