Carl Watson of Washington, D.C. makes a phone call while awaiting help after his car overturned on the exit ramp from northbound Route 295 to the Baltimore Beltway. Such roadside accidents represent a danger not only to those involved but to those who respond to the scene. That's why Maryland and other states adopted "move over" laws.
Carl Watson of Washington, D.C. makes a phone call while awaiting help after his car overturned on the exit ramp from northbound Route 295 to the Baltimore Beltway. Such roadside accidents represent a danger not only to those involved but to those who respond to the scene. That's why Maryland and other states adopted "move over" laws. (Sun photo by Amy Davis)

One year ago, Maryland’s “move over” law was officially expanded so that motorists approaching a stopped service vehicle on a state road (and not just an emergency vehicle or tow truck) would have to change lanes or, if a lane change could not be made, slow to a “prudent” speed. The new rules were a reaction to a plethora of collisions — and fatalities — involving stopped vehicles and emergency responders in recent years. The expectation was that such collisions would become infrequent as drivers took notice of the new law, as well as its $500 fine, and recognized the dangers involved.

The 12-month result? Mixed, at best, and somewhat discouraging. Police are witnessing more violations on Maryland roads, not fewer. That’s not surprising given the expansion of the law; in theory, there are more opportunities to break it. But at some point, one would hope that motorists would get the word that a stopped service vehicle (even a waste and recycling truck) is a red flag whether it’s an ambulance, a police car or utility vehicle with flashing yellow lights. Changing lanes isn’t always possible in traffic but slowing down is. That’s true whether in rush hour or mid-day, the thoroughfare is congested or lightly traveled, or it’s a rural road or the Baltimore Beltway.

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Maryland State Police report that troopers have already issued 1,347 citations and 4,979 warnings so far this year for move over violations, which is essentially the same as all of 2018 (1,349 citations and 5,677 warnings). Among those who find this number discouraging is Greg Slater, head of Maryland’s State Highway Administration. Early Tuesday morning, he was preparing to give a live interview about the dangers of failing to comply with the law when he was notified that one of his own employee vehicles had been struck along the side of the Capital Beltway’s outer loop near Connecticut Avenue. The worker wasn’t seriously injured but the scare was a timely reminder.

“These accidents are entirely preventable — if people would move over when they have the ability,” Mr. Slater observed. “It’s like people think the safety issue isn’t real.”

Sadly, it’s all too real. More than 3,400 people have been hurt and 46 killed in “work zone” crashes in Maryland from 2014 to 2018, according to the SHA. That’s proven to be a particular problem for those who respond to traffic accidents and other types of emergencies. Since 2016, there have been 100 episodes of collisions involving the SHA’s Coordinated Highway Action Response Team workers, including 16 this year (not counting Tuesday’s strike in Montgomery County). That makes roadside assistance among the most dangerous occupations in the state.

The driver of a cement truck was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore with serious but not life-threatening injuries after his rig rolled over on a ramp from the Baltimore Beltway onto northbound Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie.
The driver of a cement truck was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore with serious but not life-threatening injuries after his rig rolled over on a ramp from the Baltimore Beltway onto northbound Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie. (By Craig Urban - For The Capital, Capital Gazette)

That’s outrageous. And it’s particularly troubling that many drivers claim to be completely unaware of the move over law or of the dangers posed by speeding past stopped vehicles. As one National Safety Commission poll found, nearly three quarters of Americans have never heard of move over laws even though every state in the union has some form of one. How many deaths does it take to pierce the public’s consciousness? Across the country, Law enforcement agencies alone have lost 29 officers so far this year in traffic-related accidents.

It is a comfort to know that police continue to enforce the law but if a $500 ticket isn’t changing driver behavior perhaps more options need to be explored. During the last legislative session, lawmakers considered a bill that would have authorized certain emergency vehicles to be equipped with automated video cameras to capture move over violations — much as automated red light and speeding cameras do now. The measure was ultimately withdrawn by its sponsors but may deserve a second look in 2020. If 1,300 tickets aren’t doing the job, might 3,000 do the trick? Might 6,000?

Too bad more drivers haven’t had the experience of breaking down on a high-speed road and watching all those cars and trucks zoom past without so much as a tap on the brakes, let alone a change of lanes. It’s frightening to see so many treat driving as they might treat a video game, where a few seconds of saved time count for more than the risk of serious injury or worse. Let the mere possibility of that nightmare scenario be a reminder to drivers to take the potentially lifesaving action of moving over or slowing down for service vehicles stopped along the road.

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