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Looking out for lifesavers

A new state law requires motorists to change lanes if possible and go 20 mph under the limit near flashing signals.

By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2002

A new state law requires motorists to change lanes if possible and go 20 mph under the limit near flashing signals.

Trooper Deborah Hawkins stopped along the Howard Frankland Bridge in 1997 and got out of her car to divert traffic around a motorist changing a tire.

A 19-year-old driver in a Ford Bronco slammed into the trooper's car, pinning Hawkins against the bridge's concrete wall. For weeks, she didn't know whether she would walk again. Eventually, she returned to work for the Florida Highway Patrol, but not to patrol duty.

On Monday, more than five years later, a new state law aimed at protecting emergency workers took effect. It's called the Move Over Law.

When any emergency vehicle -- police car, ambulance, fire equipment -- is parked on or beside a road with its visible signals active, all traffic must vacate the lane next to those vehicles. For example, you must move over if you approach a police car that has pulled over a speeder, or if you approach any emergency vehicle at an accident scene.

Also, you must drive 20 mph below the posted limit if the limit is 25 mph or higher.

If the speed limit is 20 mph or less, or if the emergency situation is on a two-lane road with no spare lane to use, traffic must slow to 5 mph unless otherwise directed by a law enforcement officer.

Obeying the new law is going to take some effort by motorists. Not obeying it will cost a minimum of $30.

Police and fire-rescue personnel say it's about time for such a law.

"It should have happened years ago," said Sgt. Greg Tita, spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

The International Association of Firefighters estimates that dozens of fire-rescue personnel are killed or seriously injured each year in this country when they are hit by passing vehicles.

"Easily, it happens dozens of times a year, and that's probably being conservative," said association spokesman George Burke. "It doesn't even begin to cover the number of times our people have to dive out of the way. Our response to the new law is, "Bravo."'

A fatal accident involving emergency personnel occurred just this past month in Florida.

On June 8, Oviedo firefighter Shane Kelly, 26, and N. Donald Diebel Jr., a Winter Park obstetrician, were working in the median of Florida's Turnpike near Wildwood to free a couple from an overturned pickup truck.

The group was struck by a semitrailer truck. Kelly and Diebel were killed, and four other rescue workers were injured.

Capt. Bill Wade of Tampa Fire-Rescue said he hopes motorists understand that the new law isn't meant to hassle them.

"We hope drivers understand the spirit of the law," Wade said. "If you see an emergency vehicle on the side of the road with its emergency lights on, it means there is activity there: firefighters, police officers, paramedics, walking in the area. It's their goal to help people and go home at the end of their shifts alive and well."

The law takes into consideration that there will be occasions, even on interstates, when traffic conditions make it impossible to leave a vacant lane between traffic and an accident.

"I'm sure law enforcement people will be looking for people who overtly keep up their speed or don't move over when they can," Wade said.

The principal sponsor of the legislation that became the Move Over Law was state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

"I got tired of reading over the years about all the mishaps involving good people just trying to help others and getting killed for their efforts," Crist said. "I started looking at what to do about it."

Crist thought he was developing "an innocent little law."

"But it took three tries to get the Legislature to pass it," he said.

"It's a shame that we have to do this, that people don't use common sense and courtesy. But 20 years ago we had to do this to get people to quit passing stopped school buses, and 30 or 40 years ago, we had to put penalties on people caught speeding through school crossings during school hours."

The Move Over Law does not contain any additional penalties for injuring or killing an emergency worker, but other laws cover that area, including vehicular homicide, Crist said.

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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