OMAHA, Neb.– An Omaha state senator doesn’t want first responders to become the victims when they help or ticket drivers on the side of the highway.
For the second year, Sen. Gwen Howard is pushing a bill that would require traffic to move over to the far lane when possible when passing emergency crews, state troopers, motorist assist vehicles or tow trucks on highways and the Interstates.
The bill didn’t advance out of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee last year, but Howard is trying again. A hearing on the resurrected measure will be held Feb. 26, the last day for bills to be heard before the committee.
“We want to make it safe for all of the people who are trying to save us,” Howard said. “We’re one of the last few states to address this issue.”
Forty-one states, including Iowa, have laws requiring drivers to move over to the far lane on multilane highways and Interstates when they encounter an emergency vehicle.
Under Legislative Bill 786, violators would be fined up to a $100 for a first offense and would be charged with a misdemeanor for second and subsequent offenses. The misdemeanor carries a fine of up to $500 and the possibility of up to seven days in jail.
Some of Howard’s colleagues opposed the bill last year, questioning how the law would be enforced.
To address that concern, Howard added a section to this year’s bill saying it would apply only when emergency vehicles on shoulders are using flashing lights. The lights would notify passing motorists that they are obliged to move over, if possible.
Both bills stated that the law would not apply in situations where drivers can’t move over an extra lane because of traffic, road or weather conditions.
And the bill would prohibit authorities from staging enforcement traps by placing an emergency vehicle on the side of a highway and ticketing drivers who don’t get over.
The bill is supported by the 8,000-member Nebraska State Volunteer Firefighters Association.
Bill Lundy, an association officer and a volunteer firefighter in York, said drivers don’t bother to move over when passing rescue crews on highways.
“We’re always concerned about our personnel,” he said. “People just don’t slow down anymore.”
Lundy said firefighters use their vehicles as buffers between themselves and Interstate traffic when helping people at the side of the road.
AAA Nebraska also supports the bill. AAA offers towing services to stranded drivers. The group also helps sponsor a program in which volunteers in specially marked vans provide assistance to motorists.
AAA spokeswoman Rose White said moving over for emergency workers is important because vehicles have become wider.
Some trucks and SUVs, for example, are 8 feet wide including the side mirrors, she said. An Interstate lane is 12 feet wide, meaning there isn’t much room left if the vehicles don’t move over into the far lane.
“We just cannot afford to let this go on any longer,” White said.
Deb Collins, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska State Patrol, said the patrol doesn’t take a position on proposed legislation. But, she said, the patrol has had cruisers struck by drivers who did not move over.
In 2006 three troopers suffered minor injuries in the span of just one month while working at the sides of highways.
In two cases — one on Interstate 80 near Gretna, the other on State Highway 370 in Bellevue — passing vehicles struck the troopers’ cruisers while they were in the units. In the third incident, a trooper was slightly injured after running out of the way of a vehicle near Hastings.
Last year, two cruisers were struck by the same car while parked on the shoulder of the Maple Street on ramp for I-680. Neither trooper was injured.
The patrol initiated an education program in 2004 designed to let drivers know about the importance of moving over.If Howard’s bill is approved, signs would be posted on Interstates and highways letting drivers know of the move-over law.