Why reinvent the wheel when it comes to struck-by incidents?
We can apply the 5 Es of CRR to distracted driving to better protect our first responders operating on roadways
First responders and roadway workers have been working to prevent roadway close calls and struck-by incidents for years. The phenomenon is not new, but it seems to be getting worse by the day.
At the recent Eastern Transportation Coalition “Move Over/Distracted Driving Conference” held in Linthicum, Maryland, we heard from responders, industry experts and survivors. The impact statements from both first responders with first-hand experience and family members of struck-by victims were personal and poignant.
While there were many takeaways from the event, the two that stood out for me were the need for better data and the need to educate the public differently.
Survivors speak up and push for change
At the conference, we heard impassioned pleas from family members of victims and roadway incident survivors, representing fire/EMS, law enforcement, the towing industry and the traveling public. Representatives from various federal agencies provided federal and political perspective to the discussion as well.
One of the survivors spoke of a previous effort to enact a slow-down/move-over (SDMO) law. In that effort, she had a conversation with a state legislator about the number of firefighter deaths from roadway incidents. When presented the number of fatalities, the legislator apparently replied, “That’s not too bad.” Aside from the gross insensitivity of the statement, especially to a surviving family member, the legislator’s reply just amplifies our challenges gaining traction to improve responder safety and to end distracted driving.
Melanie Clark, whose fire lieutenant husband, Brad Clark, was killed in a Virginia roadway struck-by incident in 2018, spoke about the ripples caused by each close call and death. Numbers that may seem “not too bad” to a layperson (or politician) can have profound effects on kids, spouses/partners, parents, friends, communities and fire departments members struggling to cope with any sudden or senseless death. Melanie has been a tireless advocate to improve responder safety and was successful in pushing through Virginia’s SDMO law and establishing a SDMO license plate.
Two of the survivors we heard from have established nonprofits to improve driver awareness and responder safety. Joel Feldman lost his daughter Casey at the hands of a distracted driver in 2009. In an effort to end distracted driving, Joel established the Casey Feldman Foundation and has delivered nearly 1,000 distracted driving presentations around the country. Joel has recently begun working with the responder community to spread the message.
The second nonprofit, Flagman Inc., holds promise to be a game-changer with respect to school engagement. Cindy Iodice’s brother, a tow operator, was killed while assisting a motorist in 2020. Recognizing that many messages about distracted driving seem to go unheeded, Cindy has studied how to reach the kids, influencing them to take the message home. This model worked with seatbelts, and yes, it has worked for the fire service, for example, kids telling their parents to change their smoke alarms batteries and establish home escape plans.
The Flagman messaging campaign uses a two-pronged approach to reach the kids: First, in public service announcements, animating the “flagman” from the orange construction sign creates a positive association for kids. The learning tool under “Meet Flagman” can help kids speak up about SDMO while on the road. Second, Cindy shared a presentation in which she and her daughter went to her hometown elementary school, and with the assistance of the local fire/EMS and police departments, she delivered a powerful, interactive and meaningful lesson to the children, on their terms and turf – the school gymnasium – just like the fire service has done for years with campaigns like stop, drop, and roll.
As a nonprofit, Flagman Inc. will require funding to spread this program nationwide – a heavy lift amongst a sea of fire service programs also in need of funding. While this is not just a fire service program, and I am not suggesting that the fire service alone bears responsibility to help fund such a program, it IS well within our best interest to help support such programs.
5 Es of roadway safety
So, why do the struck-by numbers continue to rise, and how can we make a meaningful impact to reduce those numbers? There’s the epiphany – don’t reinvent the wheel!
I’ve long advocated treating traffic like a hazmat zone, specifically radiation – limit TIME on target, increase DISTANCE between yourself and the traffic, and SHIELD yourself and your patients from traffic with “big stuff” (e.g., apparatus).
In addition to the hazmat comparison, there’s another fire service connection we can apply. Remember the “5 Es of Community Risk Reduction”?
- Educating students, communities and businesses about the importance of fire safety and prevention activities;
- Engineering solutions to give occupants early warning (smoke alarms), to give occupants extra time to get out (sprinklers), and fire doors/corridors/escapes to separate occupants from IDLH areas; and
- Enforcement of codes/laws is essential to compel/convince owners/occupants to comply and/or hold individuals/companies accountable for violations.
- Emergency response that is quick, efficient and professional helps us build and maintain the public trust by reducing the chaos and by management of emergencies that prevent certain conditions and keep things from getting worse.
- Economic incentives through community grants and programs allows us to provide incentives for homeowners and businesses to take safety steps they might not otherwise take (i.e., sprinklers).
The 5 Es have had significant impact on reducing fire deaths, injuries and financial losses – and they can be applied to our efforts to both improve responder safety on the roadway and end distracted driving.
Education: Distracted driving
We have spent significant time and effort educating our responders on the hazards of roadway incidents and ways to mitigate the problem.
- The Emergency Responder Safety Institute (ERSI) has led the way for response agencies in direct and indirect training, with significant free resources available online at for all disciplines of responders.
- The U.S. Department of Transportation has its robust “Move Over” site of traffic safety information, with brochures and sample data.
- The National Safety Council offers resources focused on ending distracted driving.
Despite the successes of these groups, I believe we could do significantly more to educate the public on how to avoid becoming a statistic, specifically how to eliminate distracted driving.
I think back to when I took driver’s education. From a driving perspective, the only distraction I had to worry about was fiddling with the AM/FM radio or 8-track. Other distractions like the drunk, drowsy and other “D-drivers” are typically law enforcement training concerns. We have the choice to wipe our hands and claim “that’s not our responsibility” while our injuries, deaths and risks increase, or we can do our part to increase awareness from the ground up. Adding the SDMO and explanation of the perils of distracted driving to our existing CRR mantra could be our next best chance to make a difference with distracted driving.
Engineering: Traffic safety
Traffic light preemption already helps prevent intersection wrecks and helps us improve response times. However, while this engineering effort helps reduce intersection crashes, it does nothing to reduce secondary scene crashes/mishaps.
To focus on the secondary crash issue, let’s look at another presentation from the distracted driving summit. HAAS Alert has been working with the ERSI and many other constituent agencies to explain the value of in-vehicle map-preemption. The digital technology, which has been configured in most new fire engines since 2016, will send a message to any vehicle using WAZE or Apple maps, as well as into the display system of any Jeep/Chrysler product.
Through agreements with most of the current fire apparatus manufacturers, the HAAS alerting system module is installed in every new custom fire engine in production in the United States (see the list of manufacturers). While the configuration is installed, fire departments are required to activate the service. Costs are free and unencumbered to the fire/EMS department for the first 5 years.
Related to in-apparatus notifications, there is an option that I encourage fire departments to consider, especially those operating in more urban environments. This option provides in-response vehicle alerts when two HAAS-equipped emergency vehicles approach an intersection. When at perpendicular directions where potential impact is imminent, lights begin to flash in the unit’s cab, alerting them to other approaching emergency vehicles. The NHTSA conducted a study on this feature that showed an 80% reduction in odds of an intersection collision and proved a 25% reduction in emergency vehicle speed within the first second of a fire engine receiving the responding alert.
Another presentation tackled a potential engineering solution. Lubbock Fire Rescue Lt. Brady Robinette explored the research into helmet use in crash protection. Using the comparison of the NFL and NASCAR, Robinette, along with survivor Bob Bemis (Pennsylvania State PD sergeant) showed how brain injuries were reduced, in some cases by 100%, with the use of a more encapsulated padded helmet. Recognizing that a typical helmet could interfere with firefighter functions, Robinette continues to work with constituent partners to identify the right product and standard to use.
Enforcement: SDMO directives
It’s easy for the fire service to become cynical with respect to law enforcement; after all, we’ve got enough to worry about with our all-hazards response, CRR, EMS, etc. It is no wonder that I hear cynicism regularly with respect to the SDMO laws, which now exist in ALL 50 states and the District of Columbia. The specifics and penalties vary widely, and Maryland’s SDMO law was recently amended to apply to any vehicle, not just response/highway worker vehicles on the side of the road using their emergency flashers.
A recent public records request in Pennsylvania paints an improving picture of the enforcement picture. Since Pennsylvania’s law was enacted in 2019, there have been 17,744 move-over law citations issued. Interestingly, 80% of the citations went uncontested, and astonishingly to me, court rulings upheld a guilty verdict in 83-89% of the cases. Data from other states is not currently available and would likely need similar public record-mining to obtain. Data – one of the main takeaways I mentioned in the beginning.
Emergency response is s the “E” we understand the best – or at least the one we embrace the most. The issue for us remains a matter of humility in principle, understanding that we have to take extra steps beyond the expectation that people have granted or will grant us the right of way to do our job. The Education E is where we ensure our responders understand the issue.
While economic incentives in this space really aren’t a fire service focus, we’ve said for years that traffic wasn’t under our purview. We’ve now acknowledged that if we don’t do something to keep ourselves safe in the traffic arena, few if any others will.
One incentive that is less tangible for most to grasp is the potential reductions in insurance rates if drivers pay better attention. Additionally, the Enforcement E might be able to provide some reverse-incentive, through potential fines for drivers or traditional incentive through mitigation expenditures within communities. This is an area where we’ll have to work with some lobbist folks.
“Every driver alerted is a disaster averted”
One of the survivors who spoke at the conference used the phrase “every driver alerted is a disaster averted” to describe his vision for SDMO education. Whether it’s education, engineering or enforcement, I submit that the fire service DOES have significant responsibility to work with other response agencies, nonprofits and government agencies to alert drivers when we’re working on the roadways. It’s time to end distracted driving. “Not too bad” will get you killed. Mr. Congressman, ONE death is bad and ripples through your community and mine – enough is enough!