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All 50 US states have passed a “move over law” that requires motorists to either slow down or change lanes due to emergency personnel or workers on the side of the road–such as police, tow truck drivers and roadside construction workers, if they are not behind a barricade. But despite ongoing and evolving media campaigns that many know by heart–such as “slow for the cone zone,” a majority of people pulled over for the “move over” infraction claim ignorance.
It’s easy to be confused. For at least 20 years there has been increased concern about construction worker safety and emergency vehicle accidents where personnel were being struck on the side of the road, which sparked awareness campaigns. Caltrans has a memorial page, where they note that 187 workers have been killed on the job since 1921.
But while nobody was looking, several roadway safety issues have become laws.
The first move over law was enacted in South Carolina in 1996 after a paramedic was injured in the line of his work. He was deemed to be at fault for his own injuries because there wasn’t a clear legal status of roadside emergency workers. That case started a movement, and now all states have some form of a move over law.
California’s law was first passed a decade ago in 2007, but it was specific to emergency vehicles and tow trucks with yellow (“amber”) flashing lights. So the law applied specifically to temporary and sporadic situations, such as disabled cars being towed, or emergency personnel tending to an accident.
The law was amended three years later in 2010 to include Caltrans workers, so that personnel around ongoing construction zones are covered too, and motorists can be cited for failing to obey the law under the changing conditions of a construction zone.
The law now essentially applies to any vehicle stopped on the side of the road that has flashing lights on their vehicle. And for good reason. Even with the flashing lights and a bold orange paint job, an average of 1,000 Caltrans vehicles are struck each year.
Collisions with vehicles out of the lanes of traffic is so common, it’s one reason California CHP officers no longer approach vehicles from the driver side. A police industry study concluded that officers are in more danger approaching on the traffic/driver’s side of a vehicle, although the threat in their study was focused on vehicle occupants who might shoot at the officer. But since cameras have been installed in even more police cars, there is a stream of footage of vehicles being plowed into, and close-calls where officers are swiped while standing on the driver’s side of a stopped car.
Most work zone injuries and deaths are the result of a rear-end collision, and nationally a work zone crash occurs every 5.4 minutes. This is why general guidelines, and AAA, recommend that if unable to pull far off the road, people should get away from, and behind the vehicle. The worst place to be is directly in front of or behind a car just off the side of the road, and inside could be just as dangerous. Distracted motorists are known to sometimes not see that a car is immobile. They instead recognize an additional, and open, right hand lane, and drive straight into the parked car.
In California, vehicles typically crash into 45% of highway work zones.
While the move-over law was intended–and appears aimed at, protecting emergency personnel, statistically the effort benefits the general public far more, as 85% of those killed in a work zone are the drivers and passengers.
The penalties for a move-over citation in California adds one “point” on a driving record and levies a fine with court costs totaling about $150. This particular violation can be more subjective than many though, as California’s law is not specific as to what “slow down” means. Other states have guidelines, such as Texas, which specifies that “slowing down” is precisely “20 mph under the posted limit, and 5 mph in a 25 zone.”
But in California, local conditions at the time of the incident could be rife with grounds for dismissal. The key phrases in the law are to “move over one lane, if safe to do so,” and if unable to, then “slow down.”
No precise speeds are given in the law, so the cutover into violation territory is entirely at an officer’s subjective discretion, and for a host of reasons may not have seen the conditions the same as the cited driver. In these cases, legal representation would help discover if a driver was truly violating a law, or possibly being targeted.
Police are known to occasionally target this violation, and in this video, CHP have paired a car and motorcycle to essentially create a “move-over” zone by stopping a car, then observe how other motorists respond. In the video, the officer goes after a big-rig truck that did not move over. But the officer does not appear to have any means of accurately gauging speed, beyond visually relative to other vehicles.
Drivers can be cited for another work zone law called the “double fine zone,” which is for any violation that occurs in a work zone. And it’s common that fines can exceed $1,000 for tickets such as speeding, driving aggressively, or texting. The double fine zone law kicks in, and signs are erected, when a long list of conditions are met, which includes the area having an accident rate exceeding 1 ½ times the state average.
You can look up planned work in your area on The California Department of Transportation website, that shows they are no slouch with tech. Along with information about new construction and laws, they provide a Google map with real-time DOT projects highlighted, the traffic backups created…and current travel conditions.
The California DOT also has an annual “Be Work Zone Alert” poster contest that is open to the immediate family of Caltrans workers who are younger than 17. The styles of the posters vary, but they all stay on message to “move over” and be “Work Alert.”
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