Criminal Law

Work Zone and Emergency Safety on the Highway

At any given time, there are millions of vehicles on the highways across the US. Traffic increases, of course, during the summer vacation months and holidays. For the most part, drivers are careful and the vast majority of us get to and from our destinations without incident.

Unfortunately, thousands of people (PDF) die each year on the nation's highways, and even more are injured. And it's not just drivers who are hurt and killed, either. Law enforcement personnel and construction workers are often victims, too. All of this has lead to special laws and safety precautions to protect everyone on our highways.

Lessons from a Trooper's Tragic Death

In 2010, Doug Weddleton, a 28-year veteran of the Massachusetts State Police, was killed when not one, but two possibly drunk drivers plowed into him as he was blocking an interstate exit ramp where road construction was underway. Weddleton purposely positioned his squad car across a highway exit ramp to prevent drivers from entering a construction area and posing threats to workers.

Law enforcement officials across the country described their dismay at the culture shift that causes drivers to be far more reckless and careless than in years past.

Distracted Drivers

Many states have laws banning texting while driving, and banning cell phone use in construction zones. The City of Chicago prohibits all cell phone usage while driving unless it's hands-free. Still, many drivers believe themselves invincible, motoring along while on the phone, listening to their radio or paying attention to the GPS.

"Move Over" Laws Reduce Traffic Deaths

In years past, most any driver would immediately pull over to the side of the road at the first sound of a siren. Now, with higher speed limits, more hurried motorists and more distractions, police are noticing that drivers don't give emergency vehicles and police cars nearly the same consideration they once did.

In the past several years, many states passed Move Over Laws. They require drivers to move into another lane of traffic when an emergency vehicle or police car is stopped on the shoulder or in a traffic lane. These laws have been credited with reducing traffic deaths in the US by 39 percent since their peak in 2007.

Weddleton's tragedy led police departments across the nation to urge drivers to obey these Move Over laws and give police the room they need to do their work.

Other Safety Measures

States are trying different methods to cut down the risks to police. They're using reflective clothing for officers. Brighter lights on warning signs help attract drivers' attention to construction zones. And, often large trucks are parked at the front of construction zones rather than putting a police officer in harm's way.

Harsh Penalties for Construction Zone Violations

Most states have increased the punishments for any traffic offense committed in a construction zone. In Illinois, for example, speeding in a construction zone carries a fine that's more than double the usual fine for speeding. And hitting a construction worker includes possible jail time as a punishment.

Plea Deals Are Unlikely

Prosecutors often have some leeway to make plea offers including defensive driving school, increased fines, or court supervision for many traffic offenses. But for traffic violations involving accidents, especially where a construction worker is injured or killed, the penalties are steep and long-lasting. A driver's license will likely be suspended or even revoked, and that's on top of any jail time or fine ordered by the judge.

Law's In Force 24/7

Don't assume the lower construction zone speed limits only apply when workers are present or only during the day. Unless the posted signs specifically say that the reduced speed limits apply only when workers are present, they must be obeyed at all times. And the workers might actually be present, even though you can't see them.

Going to work, taking a trip - no matter why we're on the road, we owe it to everyone else on the highway to drive safely and obey the traffic laws. We should use a little more caution around construction sites or when emergency personnel or the police are on the shoulder or in a lane a traffic.

A little more safety and less haste will go a long way toward making sure everyone makes it to where they're going, even if it's just home for the night.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What is the penalty for violating a "Move Over" law in my state?
  • Where should I move to if I'm on a one lane road?
  • Are penalties higher if a motorist kills a police officer versus a pedestrian?
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