Almost 200 tow truck drivers have been killed nationwide in the last three years while assisting motorists on the side of the road.
In light of those deaths and the fact that emergency workers in this state continue to be put at risk, Washington State Patrol officials asked lawmakers last year to help change drivers’ behavior around stationary emergency vehicles or those offering roadside assistance.
Law enforcement officials say they’ve lost count of the number of times an officer has been at the scene of an accident or DUI arrest only to have another motorist plow into the parked cruiser — despite the flashing lights. State Patrol troopers alone have been involved in 57 collisions over three years, they testified. Most occurred during broad daylight and while the troopers had their emergency vehicle lights activated.
Lawmakers responded with a new law that took effect on Jan. 1. The law, which came out of the 2010 Legislature as House Bill 2464, stiffens fines for those who don’t give enough room to police, emergency workers and tow trucks that are pulled over on the side of the road with emergency lights flashing.
The new law builds on a 2007 bill that created a 200-foot buffer around emergency vehicles. Under that law, drivers must change lanes if it’s safe to do so, or slow down if they are unable to change lanes or move over.
Under the new law, that 200-foot buffer is designated as an “emergency zone.” Motorists who don’t slow down or move over face double fines. The ticket increases from a base of $124 to $248, with additional speeding charges. Drivers also can be charged with endangering an emergency worker and could face possible jail time and a suspended license.
The new law is a reasonable response to a growing — and deadly — problem faced by law enforcement personnel and other first responders who take a variety of risks as part of their efforts to protect the public.
The key now is to educate the motoring public about those risks and how the new law is aimed to protect emergency workers.
Unfortunately, the number of collisions has gone up even after the Legislature passed the so-called “move-over law” in 2007. Lawmakers, who passed the House bill on near unanimous votes, believe the stiffer penalties will capture the public’s attention and change driving behaviors.
As law enforcement officials testified last year, the bottom line is the need to protect emergency workers and allow them to focus on doing their jobs rather than worrying about the dangerous acts of others.
The message is clear. When approaching the scene of an emergency — usually marked with flares, flashing lights and in some cases wailing sirens, it’s time to slow down, move over and give the emergency workers plenty of room to do their jobs.
Under the new law, an emergency zone is defined as the adjacent lanes of the roadway 200 feet before and after a stationary emergency vehicle with a siren or flashing lights, a tow truck using red lights, an emergency assistance vehicle using warning lights, or a police vehicle using emergency lights.
A person who violates the speed limit in that emergency zone is subject to the double fine and that fine may not be waived, reduced, or suspended.
The crime of reckless endangerment of emergency zone workers is created as a gross misdemeanor, again with enhanced penalties, including a 60-day driver’s license suspension by the Department of Licensing.
The Legislature instructed the State Patrol and Department of Transportation to help educate motorists on the new law and potential consequences for violators.
Common sense dictates that motorists slow down when they see an emergency. But apparently it takes a doubling of fines and loss of driving privileges to get the attention of some motorists intent on further risking the lives of emergency workers.