Deputy First Class Bart Ruppenthal was three-plus years into his service with the Frederick County Sheriff's Office in the early 2000s when his vehicle was struck on Route 15 North during a traffic stop.
He was parked on the shoulder at the end of the acceleration ramp between West Patrick Street and Rosemont, behind the stopped vehicle. He wrote a traffic citation by hand, as they did nearly two decades ago. Ruppenthal felt a push from behind.
“I was focused on completing the traffic citation," he said. “My pen went straight off the paper."
Another vehicle hit his police car -- which had its emergency lights on -- sending Ruppenthal's vehicle into a lane. After the crash, investigators estimated the striking vehicle was traveling upwards of 50 mph. Ruppenthal was flown from the scene. His hand was in a cast for about 10 weeks, and he suffered a back injury.
While his injuries were not life-threatening, the experience stays with Ruppenthal, now a sergeant and patrol team supervisor. When he hears tires pass over rumble strips, he's sure to look up.
“It’s an eye-opener," he said.
Experiences like Ruppenthal's are what Maryland's Move Over law tries to prevent. Enacted in 2010, but expanded in subsequent years, the law requires motorists "approaching from the rear of an emergency vehicle using visual signals while stopped on a highway to, if possible, make a lane change into an available lane not immediately adjacent to the emergency vehicle," according to a Maryland State Police statement.
"Emergency vehicles" include police cars, tow trucks, fire engines, ambulances, service and utility vehicles, plus waste and recycling trucks. If a vehicle has flashing lights, or other emergency signals, it's a safe bet that you should stay out of their way, authorities say.
Traffic-related incidents are one of the leading causes of death for law enforcement officers, according to state police. In March 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported more than 150 law enforcement officers had been killed since 1997 after being struck on America's highways.
Wolfsville crash underscores law
But the law doesn't exist to protect police alone. On Nov. 10, a local crash sent two fire and rescue members to the hospital, along with two motorcyclists.
At the crash on Stottlemyer Road in Wolfsville, two first responders were hospitalized after a motorcycle struck them while they were tending to a patient from an earlier crash, according to the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services (DFRS). One motorcyclist involved, Annapolis resident Stephen Thomas Wolfrey, later died. Another DFRS member and two bystanders were also struck, but refused treatment, fire officials said.
Fire Chief Tom Coe said the three first responders struck on Stottlemyer Road were the first to be hit by a moving vehicle in several years. It's anticipated one of them will be off-duty for several months due to the injuries he sustained.
A few hours after the crash, Coe took the opportunity to remind drivers of the Move Over law.
“This incident tonight exemplifies the importance of Maryland’s Move Over law to keep Maryland’s first responders safe," Coe said at a Nov. 10 news conference.
While it's more rare for DFRS members to be struck on scene, it isn't uncommon for their vehicles to take a hit. Fire engines were struck in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 while responding to motor vehicle collisions, in addition to the Myersville engine struck in Wolfsville this year. Three of the impacts occurred on I-70 eastbound, according to Coe.
Vehicles rear-ended two Maryland State Police troopers' vehicles in 2020 and one in 2019, according to First Sgt. Jim Egros, acting commander of the Frederick barrack. There were no serious injuries, he said.
Frederick Police Department's officer-involved crashes appear fewer. Lt. Andrew Alcorn could only recall one in the past 13 years.
As a crash reconstructionist and traffic management instructor, Ruppenthal's job requires him to think about roadway safety and crash prevention. He implores drivers to move over or to at least slow down.
“It’s imperative for the driver to move over to an available lane," he said.
In addition to preventing injuries, adhering to the Move Over law will keep drivers from incurring fines and penalties. A driver who doesn't move over to an available lane could face a fine between $110 and $750 and get points on their license, according to Maryland law. The fine and points increase if the violation contributes to an accident, serious bodily injury or death.