A letter to the American public: Slow down and move over!
A reporter being struck during a live news report highlights the danger of working near roadway incidents – one that has proven fatal for many first responders
Viewers gasped when Tori Yorgey, a reporter for WSAZ-TV in Charleston, West Virginia, was struck by a motorist while filming an on-location live piece at the site of a water main break. Yorgey, to her credit, quickly assured the driver, anchor and viewers that she was uninjured. She continued to reassure the driver she was OK and shockingly told viewers she had been struck by a vehicle while working as a reporter in college.
Yorgey has received widespread attention from all corners of the media universe. Many of the discussions have focused on the forced necessity of journalists to work solo at crash, crime and incident scenes without a producer and camera operator. Unfortunately, the ongoing coverage of Yorgey’s incident seems to have absolved or ignored the responsibility of the driver for driving through an active roadway incident and striking Yorgey.
too many roadway fatalities
I am glad Yorgey is OK. Unfortunately, firefighters, police officers, paramedics and EMTs know all too well the danger that Yorgey and other journalists face when working at a roadside incident and the outcome could have been much different.
Tragically, Mississippi School Resource Officer Johnny Patterson died on Jan. 21, 2022, from injuries sustained after being struck while directing traffic outside an elementary school. No citations have been filed or charges issued against the driver who is cooperating with investigators. And Sgt. Ramon Gutierrez, a Harris County (Texas) Sheriff’s Office motorcycle officer, was killed on Jan. 24, 2022, by an intoxicated driver when he got off his motorcycle to block an exit ramp. The driver was arrested later and is facing charges.
Other public safety personnel have been struck and injured, struck and injured, or had near misses with distracted, intoxicated or impaired drivers recently. Firefighter David Spink, Barstow (California) Fire Protection District, was struck by a vehicle on an interstate highway in late 2021. He died of his injuries earlier this month. Two Milwaukee firefighters were struck shoveling snow in front of the fire station. The driver was cited for "driving too fast for conditions." Both firefighters are expected to fully recover. All of these incidents have one thing in common: They received a fraction of the attention as the West Virginia TV reporter.
To the public: Slow Down, Move Over!
One of the best ways the public can show their support and concern for first responders is to move over and slow down when they see flashing lights. Motor vehicle operators should be extra attentive to their vehicle’s speed, following distance and move over distance when they see a police officer, firefighter, EMT or paramedic out of their vehicle and on the road, or public safety vehicles parked on the side of the roadway. Even if you can’t see an officer outside of their vehicle, assume that is the case by slowing down and moving over.
All public safety agencies, as well as their media and community partners, need to continue campaigns to educate civilians about Move Over laws, prohibitions against distracted driving and the consequences of operating while intoxicated. PIOs, contact your local reporters to suggest a story that connects Yorgey’s incident to what local drivers need to know about Move Over Laws and penalties for violations. You know the media likes to find a local angle to a high-interest national news story. Also, offer to educate your media partners about positioning at incidents to reduce their risk while allowing them to get the video coverage they need.
Roadway incidents and near misses, even if there are minor or no injuries to public safety personnel, must be investigated. If warranted, citations should be issued and charges filed. Don’t excuse dangerous driving as part of the job without consequences to the drivers committing infractions.
To lawmakers: Support Move Over Laws
In late 2021, a bipartisan group of legislators led the passage and signing of Wisconsin Act 115 into law. The new law increases fines for violations within 500 feet of an authorized emergency vehicle. The law also requires the Department of Transportation to conduct a public education campaign.
Legislators in every state need to hear from their public safety constituents that laws against speeding, distracted driving and intoxication should be strengthened. Increased penalties need to apply to incidents involving police, fire and EMS, as well as public works, construction, tows and wreckers, and media personnel.
The roadway is a hot zone
Treat every roadway incident as a hot zone. Limit your time of exposure, increase your distance from passing vehicles and shield yourself with a blocking vehicle or apparatus. Don’t count on bouncing back to your feet, like Yorgey did, or getting the same media attention. Stay safe.