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A universal hazard [Editorial]

Motorists on Maryland roads approaching a police or emergency vehicle stopped on the shoulder with lights flashing are required by law to move over to the next lane or slow down to avoid the possibility of hitting anyone standing nearby. It's a sensible measure designed to protect law-enforcement and emergency personnel from becoming victims of the very traffic problems they are attempting to solve.

But if you happen to be a tow truck operator assisting a disabled vehicle under similar circumstances, well, that's another story: You can put up orange cones and flash your lights all you want but other drivers are under no obligation to slow down, let alone change lanes to avoid you. They can whip past at 65 mph inches from where you're standing, and it's all perfectly legal.

That's why this year the Maryland General Assembly is considering an expansion of the state's "move over law" to include tow trucks in addition to police, fire and EMS vehicles. Violators would be subject to a citation and fines of up to $500. The number of close calls — and at least one fatality — in such situations since the original law was passed in 2010 has been a matter of concern for public safety officials and tow truck companies ever since, and we hope lawmakers will approve this common-sense measure before anyone else is injured or killed.

But why stop with tow truck operators when so many others are just as much at risk when an accident or vehicle malfunction forces them to stop roadside? Motorists who get a flat that requires them to pull over often find themselves in the same precarious situation as the tow truck driver who comes to their rescue. And unlike the tow truck operator, the risk for ordinary motorists is compounded if there are passengers in their vehicles, especially if they include children.

The same is true for state highway maintenance employees and contract workers whose jobs require them to labor in close proximity to high-speed traffic. Over the years there have been any number of incidents in which such workers have been seriously injured or killed by drivers who didn't see them until it was too late or who ignored the flashing yellow lights on their vehicles. Surely their lives are just as valuable and as worthy of protection as those of police, fire and emergency workers and tow truck drivers.

You'd think Maryland lawmakers would have attended to such anomalies long ago when the original legislation was approved. But politics being what it is, that's often not the way things happen in Annapolis, where lawmakers usually prefer to do as little tinkering as possible rather than risk a backlash from those opposed to doing anything at all.

Indeed, this year's modest effort to expand the "move over" law to include tow truck drivers originally contained protections for ordinary motorists, service workers and contract employees as well. But the latter ultimately were stripped from the final proposal after some lawmakers complained the changes represented unnecessary government overreaching.

If you think it's unreasonable to require drivers to change lanes or slow down when they encounter a station wagon full of kids broken down on the side of the road or workers repairing a pothole next to the median strip, you probably are also one of those people who thinks there shouldn't be speed limits in school zones or pedestrian crosswalks mandating drivers to stop even if no traffic light is present. But most people slow down in school zones and give pedestrians the right of way not just because the law says they must but because it's an obvious safety measure and common courtesy they'd want themselves if the situation were reversed.

The same principle should apply to disabled vehicles and highway workers. Anyone can find themselves a potential victim of distracted or reckless drivers who fail to appreciate the danger they pose to themselves and others when they rocket past stranded vehicles and maintenance crews by hair-thin margins of safety. It's long past time lawmakers recognize such situations as a universal hazard for drivers and passengers and approve legislation that protects everyone who travels by road.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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