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In a remarkable response to requests from public safety leaders, more than a dozen states have enacted new laws designed to protect emergency responders working on emergency scenes in the past two years.
As I noted last year (Fire Law, August 2002), about one-third of firefighter deaths occur at the scene of an incident on a roadway. The highly publicized death of Chicago Fire Lieutenant Scott Gillen in December 2000 prompted action in many states. These responses have taken two different approaches.
One approach has been to enact provisions similar to "Scott's Law," which the Illinois Legislature created in 2001 in response to Gillen's death. The law requires a civilian driver to vacate the lane adjacent to an emergency vehicle stopped at the scene of an emergency and to reduce speed. Further, it imposes a fine of up to $10,000 for any violation, and a driver's license suspension if the violation results in a fatality, personal injury or property-damage collision.
The other approach has been that taken by the National Commission on Traffic Laws and Ordinances (NCUTLO, www.ncutlo.org). Based on an analysis commissioned by Congress, NCUTLO concluded that some of the specific provisions of "Scott's Law" were ineffective and even potentially counterproductive. In particular, the commission objected to the requirement that drivers vacate the lane adjacent to an emergency vehicle stopped at the scene of an emergency. This requirement appears to be simple and straightforward, but it also holds great potential for uncertainty since there is an exemption for situations in which changing lanes would be unsafe. Because reasonable drivers will differ on when a lane change is "unsafe," any driver cited for failing to change lanes could respond by arguing that a lane change would not have been safe.
Instead, NCUTLO's "Incident Responders' Safety Model Law" advocates a more comprehensive approach. Rather than merely instructing drivers in what to do when approaching an emergency scene, the NCUTLO model law begins at the point where public safety agencies should begin, by requiring them to develop a plan for effectively managing traffic at emergency scenes. Next, it recognizes the incident command system and gives the incident commander authority to control traffic. Only then does the model law identify requirements for civilian motor vehicles approaching an emergency scene. Drivers must:
- Use a reasonable and prudent speed
- Obey the directions of authorized emergency personnel
- Vacate any traffic lane that is completely or partially blocked by emergency apparatus
The Emergency Response Safety Institute (ERSI, www.responder safety.com) has identified 22 state laws that specifically address roadway scene safety. In 17 of those states, a driver must vacate the lane closest to the emergency vehicle, similar to "Scott's Law." Every one of the laws also requires that drivers reduce their speed. Three states (Florida, West Virginia and Wisconsin) specify that motorists must reduce speed by a specific amount (15 or 20 mph). North Carolina requires drivers to stop, then proceed. The vast majority, however, use more general language requiring drivers to reduce and maintain a safe speed, similar to the NCUTLO language. States also require motorists to obey the directions of emergency personnel on the scene, again similar to the NCUTLO model law. ERSI does not identify which states have developed the traffic management plans recommended by NCUTLO.
Almost every law (including "Scott's Law") applies whenever a driver is approaching an "authorized emergency vehicle." This language should include all law enforcement, fire and EMS vehicles. It is especially important that EMS workers are protected, notes W. Ann Maggiore, a New Mexico attorney with substantial fire service background and expertise, or they would have no greater legal protection than any civilian pedestrian.
The Illinois fine of up to $10,000 is an extraordinarily high penalty for a traffic violation, which certainly sends a message that the state considers this to be a serious offense. However, the law by itself is not likely to change the actions of dangerous drivers. Careless, reckless and aggressive drivers (to say nothing of those, such as the driver who killed Gillen, who are drunk), won't be deterred by the size of the penalty alone. To be effective, the law must be supplemented by aggressive public education and enforcement.
Statutes such as "Scott's Law" and the NCUTLO model law shouldn't be necessary, but they are. Every state's traffic law requires drivers to operate vehicles with due regard for the safety of others. This includes safely moving past an emergency scene. But, too often, this isn't happening. So, we need special laws that clearly define what is expected of drivers and impose special penalties for those who fail to comply.
While it is remarkable that more than a dozen states have acted, a majority of states still do not provide specific protection to emergency workers at emergency scenes. Emergency services agencies must work together to enact improved laws and make the public aware of its responsibilities when approaching an emergency scene.
Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.