First responders: Heed Scott's Law, move over
Formally known as the Move Over Law, it requires drivers to vacate the lane closest if there are first responders, public works employees or tow-truck operators on the shoulder
Journal Star, Peoria, Ill.
PEORIA, Ill. — People don't care.
They see us as a bother.
They are in too much of a rush.
Those are comments from area police officers, public works employees, a tow truck operator and others about the lack of compliance with Scott's Law, which requires motorists to get out of the way of emergency crews who are on the side of the road.
Much has been written and made of Scott's Law in the wake of the horrific first three months of 2019, during which 17 Illinois State Police troopers have been involved in incidents in which a person struck them or their vehicle. Three of those troopers have died; two were laid to rest in the last week.
Lisa Osborne, a State Police trooper with the District 8 office in Metamora, knew the second of the troopers killed. Brooke Jones-Story and Jones-Story's husband, Robert, were first-responder instructors when Osborne was at the State Police Academy. She saw firsthand Jones-Story's passion for teaching how to aid and care for other people.
"Brooke was a very sweet person ... she was a stepmother and step-grandmother, and absolutely loved her animals," Osborne recalled. "Brooke rescued animals and had a heart of gold."
It's not just state troopers that drivers need to look out for. The law also pertains to tow truck drivers, public works employees, firefighters, paramedics and others whose jobs might require them to be on the side of the road while traffic is whizzing by. And, as a recent educational campaign by the Woodford County Sheriff's Department indicated, many people didn't know about the law or know who it applies to.
And that, say workers, is upsetting.
"It can be terrifying," said Jim Wieda, who spends hours on the road as part of the Peoria County Highway Department. He says he, like others with him, have had plenty of close calls. Recently, Wieda and colleague Ben Short were on Big Hollow Road filling potholes. That's a relatively easy place to work. There was a truck in front and one in the back. They were protected and cars were veering wide to stay out of their way. But it's not always like that.
"Sometimes, you think that people view us as being in their way," Short said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Dennis Tipsword, the chief deputy of the Woodford County Sheriff's Department, and others set up decoys along Illinois Route 116 in Germantown Hills. On one side of the road was a firetruck with its lights on. On the other, a tow truck with a pickup truck on the back.
Within the first 90 minutes, nearly all of the 45 informational flyers Tipsword had printed out were distributed to drivers as part of the campaign.
No one was issued a ticket, but they did get a lesson on who the law applies to and why it matters. Before the detail began, Tipsword and other deputies weren't sure how it would go. Some thought it would be a non-issue, as they thought many people knew of the law.
"I am absolutely surprised at the number of violations we have seen today, and in such a short time," he said just after he stopped a man who was talking on his phone and who had not moved over. "That is far more than I anticipated today, and it's not even a busy time of day."
It's frustrating, Tipsword and others say, when they hear the excuses from drivers. One said he didn't see the firetruck. Another said she always gets over but was too worried about traffic in the other lane and felt it wasn't safe. Incidentally, there were no cars next to that woman who had pulled out from an intersection about a quarter-mile up the road from the tow truck. The man who was on his cellphone said he was on his way to get a hands-free device.
"Look, we want to come home to our families, too," said one Woodford County Sheriff's deputy as he spoke to a woman in an SUV. She had just flown by the tow truck, saying she didn't know she had to slow down.
The woman said she knew she should pull over for police, but didn't know it was for tow trucks, too. Lesson learned, she said.
"The few people I have pulled over, they are aware of the law. They agree with the law. But for some reason, they didn't pull over. It doesn't make sense, doesn't add up, so I am a little speechless on that," Tipsword said.
What's the law?
So what is Scott's Law? The law was conceived in the wake of a 2000 fatal accident involving Chicago firefighter Scott Gillen. He was struck and killed by a motorist who was driving too fast and too close to where Gillen was helping with a crash.
Passed a few years later, the law, formally known as the Move Over Law, requires drivers to vacate the lane closest if there are first responders, public works employees or tow-truck operators — essentially anyone who works with a flashing light — on the shoulder.
If it's not possible to change lanes, or is unsafe, then a motorist must slow down. It's that simple. Move over. Slow down, be attentive and compassionate. It doesn't matter, the law states, if a person is visible on the side of the road or not. If there is a car, truck or vehicle with flashing lights, then Scott's Law controls how a motorist must approach. A violation could bring a fine of up to $10,000 and possibly a suspension of driving privileges if there are aggravating circumstances.
Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell and Tipsword both point out that it's at the discretion of the officer who witnesses the offense. The bottom line for most is whether an attempt was made to comply.
"As long as we see that motorists are attempting to comply with the spirit of the law, which is to give emergency workers a safe space to work, we are OK with that," Tipsword said.
Asbell agreed and noted that slowing down often helps as well.
"The most dangerous thing these officers do on a daily basis is a traffic stop for this very reason," Asbell said. "Your attention is diverted. You are concentrating on the car stop, helping the person or whatever reason that you stopped the car and you can't be watching your back. You don't know what's coming, so you don't have the opportunity to get out of the way."
For years, the law applied to just police and fire. In 2017, tow-truck operators and others were added. Some, like Short with the highway department, think it should apply to anyone. Others, including some Illinois state representatives, think violations should be a felony.
The Chicago Tribune reported the state police has handed out 494 Scott's Law citations in 2019, more than double the number of citations in 2018.
Wieda, with the highway department, has a simple suggestion.
"Anyone who violates the law should have to come and stand on the side of the road with us."
Ask any police officer or tow-truck driver or firefighter, they'll tell you that having a close call is something they have had often and it still scares them.
Being on the interstate when a semi comes blasting by at 55 to 60 mph is nerve wracking. The ground shakes, and the moving air can push a person back and forth.
"The scariest one is when I was on the interstate with a motorist assist call and a semi truck drove very close to me. I could feel it (the wind from the truck) sucking me in," Asbell said.
But it's not just the interstate. Officer Jared Moore with the Peoria Police Department's traffic unit said he was on War Memorial Drive on Thursday for a traffic stop. A fellow officer stopped by to check in on him and Moore asked him to remain parked behind him as "I've seen a dozen or so Scott's Law violations."
And almost immediately, as if on cue, a car drove by, in the right lane, without slowing. The left lane was open, he said. The other officer pulled the car over. The driver told him that while she knew about the law, she just didn't get over.
Moore said he gets that people can't always get over. Traffic situations and other things can cause issues, but motorists should slow down. At least be aware, he said, of the officers.
Veteran Officer Mike Ott, also a traffic officer, who has been with the Peoria Police Department for more than 20 years, has done hundreds of traffic stops. Last week, he worked an accident on Illinois Route 6 in between Charter Oak Road and War Memorial. His car, a state trooper's car, a firetruck and ambulance were on the scene. That section of the highway is long and straight, he said. He stopped three cars for Scott's Law violations. Is it happening more? He doesn't think so.
"I've been making traffic stops for 27 years. This is nothing new," Ott said. "It's been going on for quite some time. It's more distraction, period. And the fact that the people don't think they are as close to you as they are."
Kevin Monge of K Towing in Roanoke said he's had plenty of close calls. But after 30 years of doing the job, he's gotten used to looking over his shoulder and keeping his head on a swivel. Still, you can't always be ready.
"You feel the wind. You feel the reverberations of the wind. When I am laying on the road, hooking up the hooks on the vehicle, I'm down low, I'm literally lying on the road, and it's pretty scary. I watch pretty close when I am on the road and I want others to watch just close as I do," he said. "I've been out on the interstate and there is no one in the other lane and they still don't move over. You'd think it would be common sense."
For Tipsword, one of the reasons for noncompliance is simple.
"It's just not real to them because they aren't on the side of the road."
For Asbell, the fear hit home hard this past winter.
On Jan. 15, a state trooper and one of Asbell's deputies were transported to a hospital as a result of accidents on I-74 near milepost 78.
Deputy Christopher Polhemus and Trooper Breann Imig parked their squad cars on the westbound left shoulder of the interstate and were attempting to assist motorists involved in accidents, officials have said.
It wasn't a Scott's Law violation, but it reinforces what Asbell, Ott, Moore, Tipsword and others say — it's dangerous out there. And it's not just the officers who worry.
"Our families, our spouses and our kids think about this more than we do in these professions."
©2019 the Journal Star (Peoria, Ill.)