First responder safety on our highways
The families of three firefighters were forever changed on the night of October 11, 2018 when a tractor-trailer crashed into the back of a Hanover County firetruck on Interstate 295. Lt. Brad Clark’s family is reminded daily of his tragic death. Our prayers and thoughts go out to them as they prepare to spend their first Christmas without him. We wish the two firefighters who survived the crash strength and wellbeing as they continue their journeys of recovery. That incident occurred during the heavy rains of Tropical Storm Michael.
Record December snowfall Dec. 9, 2018 led to at least four Virginia State Police troopers being struck by skidding vehicles in a 12-hour period on slick interstates in Central and Southwest Virginia. Thankfully the troopers’ injuries were only minor and the other drivers remained safe.
For the men and women whose “office” is the highway, these incidents are not limited to major weather events. Close calls, injury and death are a daily risk to every state and local law enforcement officer, firefighter, EMS worker, highway maintenance employee, and tow truck operator working across the Commonwealth. Even the arrow boards, crash cushions and barrels in a highway work zone are not enough to guarantee one’s safety. In February of this year, a Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) contract employee was struck and killed in an active work zone on Interstate 95 in Prince George County by a distracted driver. Another family we remember during the holiday season.
At the beginning of this month, Governor Northam issued a directive to establish the Executive Leadership Team on Highway Safety. The mission of this collaboration among the Virginia departments of Education, Health, Motor Vehicles, State Police and Transportation and traffic safety advocates is to reduce the rising number of fatalities on Virginia’s roadways. The directive is to save more lives through the advancement of education, engineering and enforcement relative to traffic safety. Those most committed to achieving such objectives are the very ones most at risk or harm for the purpose of saving others.
Like all 50 states, Virginia has what is called a “Move Over” law. It’s a state law designed to protect those working alongside the highways by requiring motorists to move a lane away from vehicles stopped on the side of a road with flashing red, blue or amber lights. If unable to move over, then the Code of Virginia requires a driver to pass such vehicles “cautiously”. Simple as this concept may be, those few extra feet can mean the difference between life and death. Yet across the nation traffic incidents continue to be the leading cause of death for law enforcement and highway maintenance workers; and the second leading cause for firefighter deaths in the nation.
There are a number of special days and weeks designated to recognize these professionals and their work. April has National Work Zone Awareness Week. June is designated in Virginia as “Move Over Month.” There are efforts underway to designate a National Tow Truck Operator Week in September. In October, Virginia has special days designated to recognize firefighters for their service and sacrifice. Our firefighters, state troopers, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, highway maintenance workers and tow truck operators – spend every day on our highways working to serve and protect the motoring public. They are dependent on every driver observing the Move Over law every day and not just some of the time.
The first priority of a police officer is to go home to his or her family at the end of the shift. This applies to all those working alongside a Virginia highway in a vehicle with red, blue, or amber lights. It is time for Virginians to take a serious step forward to help save the lives of those who have chosen a career to look out for and save ours.
Column by Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine and Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran.