TAMPA — Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins pulled over on Interstate 4 in Polk County to help two motorcyclists and parked his cruiser in the far left emergency median — away from the traffic zooming by and close to where the two had stopped.
While he sat inside the cruiser, an approaching vehicle lost control, slammed into the passenger side and pushed the car toward the guardrail. One of the motorcyclists had to leap over it to escape being pinned by the cruiser. Gaskins received neck and shoulder injuries.
The 2009 crash highlighted the dangers law enforcement officers face every time they work on the side of the road — dangers that state lawmakers tried to limit when they passed the 2002 “move over” law. It requires motorists to move over a lane or slow down 20 miles per hour below the posted speed limit when an emergency vehicle has its flashing lights on and is parked on the side of the road.
The scene was repeated just last week when two Hillsborough County sheriff’s officers, Master Deputy Chris Davis and Capt. Steve Launikitis, were hurt on Interstate 75 when a motorcyclist lost control, drove onto the shoulder and crashed into them as they made a traffic stop involving another motorcyclist.
Davis suffered a broken leg and dislocated shoulder; Launikitis also has a broken leg. They are at home recovering, said Larry McKinnon, a sheriff’s office spokesman.
“We need that space to get the job done safely,” said Gaskins, an highway patrol spokesman. “People really need to pay attention. If you drive around, there is a good number that don’t move over.”
Since 1999, more than 170 law enforcement officers nationwide have died from a crash while the officer was parked on the side of the road, according to the highway patrol.
Hillsborough sheriff’s Sgt. Troy J. Morgan has pulled over about 20 people for failing to follow the “move over” law. He hasn’t written a ticket, instead taking the time to educate drivers, he said.
When he approaches them, most people point out that no one was standing outside of the vehicle, Morgan said.
They fail to see there’s danger even when an officer is inside the patrol car and will probably get out at some point, Morgan said.
“It creates a hazard for everyone involved,” Morgan said.
In many cases, drivers do try to move a lane over to give an emergency vehicle room, he said. But when they can’t, they often don’t take the next step by slowing down.
“The majority of people are concerned where they are going,” said Morgan, who works in the sheriff’s department of patrol services and is in charge of the sheriff’s Operation 3-D DUI Unit.
Even though it isn’t required by law, Morgan and Gaskins say it’s a courtesy to move over a lane or slow down for any vehicle on the side of the road, not just emergency vehicles.
One example is a motorist changing a tire.
But emergency personnel face especially complex challenges working the side of the road.
Law enforcement officers don’t know who they’re stopping, Gaskins said. An officer is watching the driver’s hand movements inside the vehicle as a precaution. At the same time, he must be mindful of traffic.
“The officers are out there day in, day out,” Gaskins said. “Our exposure is much greater.”
The “move over” law is 11 years old but the education process continues.
Every year, the highway patrol mounts a campaign as a reminder, issuing news releases and messages on interstate billboards and highway signs, Gaskins said,
The law applies to law enforcement and all emergency vehicles on all roadways, not just the interstates. It applies to tow trucks, as well.
In Hillsborough County, a ticket for a “move over” law violation means a $153 fine and points on your driver’s license. It’s a primary traffic offense, so officers can stop offenders for this violation alone.
In Hillsborough County, under the state statute that includes the “move over” law, 295 citations were issued in the nearly three years from Jan. 1, 2011, to Oct. 11, according to the Clerk of the Circuit Court’s office.
The state statute also covers failure to reduce speed by 20 mph below the posted limit when passing in the lane next to an emergency vehicle with its lights on, and failure to yield the right-of-way to an emergency vehicle heading to an emergency.
As a Florida driver, Benjamin Hammonds thinks about 50 percent of vehicles he sees are obeying the law when an emergency vehicle is on the side of the road.
“I see people constantly going past and not observing the law,” said Hammonds, 28, of Tampa. “Either they aren’t aware of it or simply don’t care.”
Hammonds said he is aware of the law and moves his vehicle over when possible.
“I always try to,” Hammonds said.
He didn’t know about the requirement that drivers reduce their speed by 20 mph if they can’t move over.
Overall, he said, he favors the law.
“It makes a lot of sense,” Hammonds said. “I’m glad it’s in place. I wish more people took it seriously.”
Florida driver Malik Green said he also follows the law.
He prefers to move a lane over, and finds it difficult to reduce speed, especially if he’s driving fast and unexpectedly approaches an emergency vehicle.
“To go from 75 to 55 is a lot more challenging than to just move over,” said Green, 21, of Wesley Chapel.
He sees some people obey the law and others who don’t, he said.
“It could be ignorance,” Green said. “It’s like the blinker. Everyone knows to use the blinker, but they don’t. It’s all simple laws that can easily be done but people choose not to do them.”