When a police officer leaves home to report for duty, he or she knows that they are stepping into a dangerous world. They accept that as part of the deal for the profession they have chosen.
But that ever-present danger should not rear its ugly head when the police officer is writing out a traffic ticket on the side of a busy highway.
Since 2010, Maryland law has required drivers to move away from the highway shoulder when they pass an emergency vehicle stopped on the berm of a highway.
The Move Over 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 the Maryland State Police. That includes police cars, tow trucks, fire engines, ambulances, service and utility vehicles, plus waste and recycling trucks.
The state police have a special interest in the application of the law since its officers are responsible for patrolling the interstate highways where the most dangerous crashes can occur.
One officer who knows first-hand the danger of a traffic stop on a freeway is Deputy First Class Bart Ruppenthal of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office. In the early 2000s, his vehicle was struck on U.S. 15 North during a traffic stop between West Patrick Street and Rosemont Avenue.
He recently told News-Post reporter Mary Grace Keller that he was sitting in his patrol car, with emergency lights flashing, writing out the citation when his vehicle was smashed into from behind.
“My pen went straight off the paper,” he said.
Investigators estimated the vehicle was traveling more than 50 mph. Ruppenthal was flown from the scene, his hand was in a cast for about 10 weeks, and he suffered a back injury.
The FBI reported in 2013 that “one sixth of all officers who died accidentally in the line of duty were killed by being struck by a vehicle when they were outside of the patrol vehicle.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation reported in 2019 that more than 150 law enforcement officers had been killed since 1997 after being struck on America’s highways.
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.
Other emergency vehicles have been hit by distracted or inattentive drivers. Three first responders from the county fire and rescue service were recently hit by a motorcyclist while tending to a driver at an accident in Wolfsville. Fire Chief Tom Coe told our reporter that fire engines were struck in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 while responding to motor vehicle collisions, and three of those were on I-70.
A driver who fails to move over can be fined up to $750, and penalties increase if the violation contributes to an accident, serious bodily injury or death. But it may be time to more vigorously enforce this law. Perhaps officers who have stopped a vehicle should call for backup to watch for and cite any driver who fails to change lanes.
State legislators should also consider requiring motorists to move over for any vehicle stopped on the side of a highway, whether during an emergency or not. If drivers become accustomed to moving over for anyone, they are less likely to forget when overtaking a police car.
Moving over is just a matter of common sense, whether the stopped vehicle is a police car or a motorist changing a flat tire. But sometimes common sense needs to be taught and reinforced by punishment, before it becomes a learned behavior.