The pain still bothers Will Richter from time to time, even 10 years after the sheriff’s deputy was pinned between two cars during a traffic stop on a South Carolina interstate.
“I don’t think most motorists give a whole lot of thought to what it would feel like to be standing on the side of the road, 3 feet away from traffic that’s moving at 70 mph,” said Richter, 36, a deputy with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s frustrating for us when motorists don’t slow down and don’t move over. We see firsthand just how bad things can go, and how quickly.”
Richter was injured during a traffic stop on Interstate 385 in Greenville County late one night in June 2007. A car sideswiped his cruiser, which was parked on the shoulder with its blue lights flashing, and then hit Richter, leaving him with injuries to his feet, back and knees. The driver kept going and was never caught.
A South Carolina law implemented in 2002 requires drivers to move to the non-adjacent lane when passing emergency vehicles that are stopped on the roadside with emergency lights flashing, or slow down if moving over is not an option. The problem, law enforcement officials say, is that drivers don’t know the law exists.
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Since 2000, 18 South Carolina officers have been killed in collisions while on duty, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. None of those involved officers parked on the side of a roadway.
That number also does not include last week’s crash that killed state trooper Daniel Rebman, who was parked on the shoulder of I-385 in Greenville County when his patrol car was hit from behind by a truck. The accident remains under investigation, and so it’s unclear if the move over law was violated.
Still, officers in the Palmetto State are getting injured regularly in crashes that happen while they are either conducting traffic stops or responding to other crashes on roadways.
In May 2016, a Columbia police officer was seriously injured when his patrol car was hit from behind while he worked a fender bender on I-126 at the Broad River bridge. And this summer, a state trooper was injured while working a fatal crash on I-20 in Lexington County. A motorist who did not move over hit a fire truck, which then struck the trooper.
‘People don’t know that it’s the law’
Drivers who cannot move over as they pass emergency vehicles on the side of the road are required to slow down – and that means reducing your speed by more than 5 mph, according to Lance Cpl. David Jones of the Highway Patrol.
“If you're traveling down the highway at 70 mph, you should reduce your speed to 45 mph or so,” he said.
Violators of South Carolina’s law face a misdemeanor charge and a fine of between $300 and $500.
A violation of Georgia’s law carries a similar fine. In North Carolina, violators could see a $250 fine. But if injury or death results, they face an increased fine and a felony charge.
In Arkansas, which has one of the strictest move-over laws in the country, violators face up to three months in jail, a $500 fine and suspension of their license.
The problem with South Carolina’s law isn’t with the penalties, according to state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, whose brother is a state trooper.
“The biggest problem is the lack of awareness that this law exists,” he said. “People don’t know that it’s the law. So if you increase the penalties without making a conscious effort to increase awareness, then all you’re going to do is have a few people get pulled over who don’t even know it’s the law, and they’re going to have a big ticket or jail time.”
The law doesn’t cover just law enforcement officers; drivers are also required to move over for firefighters, paramedics and tow truck drivers at the scene of a crash. Bamberg is representing two paramedics whose ambulance was sideswiped by a tractor-trailer in Orangeburg County over the summer. They had responded to a crash and were tending to the crash victim in the back of the ambulance when they were hit, he said. The collision pinned the ambulance between the truck and a guard rail.
“These people are just doing their job, and they have a right to make it home just like you do,” Bamberg said of emergency responders. “Saving five minutes on your journey to wherever your destination is is not worth someone dying, and that’s the problem we face. Everybody’s in a hurry. Everybody wants to get where they’re going. Everybody wants to only think about themselves.”
Difficult to enforce
Another problem with the law, Bamberg says, is enforcing it.
“It’s a difficult law to enforce because if law enforcement is on the side of the road, there’s usually only one or two of them there,” he said.
Officers usually decide on a case-by-case basis whether to pursue someone who did not move over, according to Sgt. Robert Uhall of the Columbia Police Department’s traffic enforcement unit.
“If somebody goes by dangerously, and we feel it's more important than the task at hand, we can break away from that and try to pursue that violation,” he said. When an officer cannot pursue someone who violates the law, patrol car dashcams and body cameras help capture tag numbers to track the person down later, he said.
In 2013, troopers wrote 69 tickets statewide for drivers who violated the move-over law, according to data provided by the S.C. Department of Public Safety. That number increased to 123 in 2014, 130 in 2015 and 132 in 2016. So far this year, troopers have written 116 tickets for the offense.
Since July 1, 2012, Columbia police officers have charged 61 drivers with violating the law, according to department numbers.
A fine is left to the discretion of each individual officer, according to Jones.
“Education is key for us,” he said. “If we can achieve the goal of changing that driver’s behavior through a warning, we try to do that as well.”
‘An angel on my shoulder’
Will Richter returned to work within a week or two of the collision that nearly killed him in 2007.
“About three years after that, the injuries I had just left me with horrible pain that, literally, left me in tears every day because it was so hard to deal with,” he said. “Reliving such a traumatic event is not a pleasant thing for me. I certainly want to understand what happened and do what I can to prevent things like that from happening in the future.”
The dash cam from Richter’s patrol car captured video of the car hitting him. That footage was used in public service announcements to raise awareness of the state’s move-over law, he said.
“Anytime after that, (when) I stop a car on a busy road or on the interstate, I’m constantly aware of the possibility that something like that can happen again,” he said.
A close call several weeks ago now serves as a constant reminder of the dangers of traffic stops and crash scenes for Uhall. After pulling over a driver for speeding on S.C. 277, Uhall said he was in his patrol car, writing a ticket when a car approaching him from behind swerved off the road and tore through the grass to the right of his patrol car.
“That was a situation I'm still thinking about just about every day now,” he said. “I had an angel on my shoulder that day.”