Tragedy strikes twice when a first responder is injured or killed on the job. Lieutenant Scott Gillen of the Chicago Fire Department was one such casualty. Gillen was struck by a passing driver while assisting at a crash on a Chicago expressway in December of 2000. The Chicago firefighter and father of five died ten hours later at the hospital. Cook County judge Stanley J. Sacks sentenced the intoxicated driver of the car that hit Gillen to a thirteen-year prison sentence, saying, “speeding through an accident scene showed ‘a callous indifference for human life.’”
That “callous indifference” led to Scott’s Law in Illinois. According to Chapter 625 of the Illinois Compiled Statutes (ILCS) 5/11-907(c), when drivers approach a stopped emergency vehicle with flashing lights, the moving vehicles must:
- Slow down
- Yield right-of-way by changing lanes, if possible
- Proceed with due caution, especially if a lane change is not possible
The law was expanded in 2017 and now includes all vehicles displaying hazard lights. Drivers who fail to yield can face a license suspension or fines up to $10,000.
Laws protecting first responders aren’t a new concept in the US. South Carolina passed the first Move Over law in 1996 in response to a similar incident. Prior to this, first responders were held liable for such accidents; they were deemed to be too close to the road for safety. Such incidents, including the accident that killed Scott Gillam, led to a national standard in 2000. As of July 2012, all fifty states enacted versions of the Move Over law.
But are these laws helping? Based on the behavior of those who still speed by emergency vehicles and first responders on roads all over the country, officials believe many drivers don’t know about these laws. States have tried to raise awareness through a variety of campaigns to ensure that drivers know what to do when they see emergency vehicles ahead, but tragedy continues to strike, and the statistics are still grim. There were 10 squads hit in 2019 alone in Illinois, all within a span of 54 days.
ISP Trooper Christopher Lambert, who was killed in the line of duty in 2019 when he was struck while on the scene of a crash, is one such example. The trooper had angled his car to protect those in the accident when he was hit by an oncoming vehicle and thrown several feet. The Army veteran and father died at the hospital.
It seems that many drivers still aren’t aware of the Move Over laws or they simply aren’t obeying the laws, but the Illinois State Patrol is taking another step to change this. Illinois state troopers have added “Move Over” details near accident sites to catch people who break the law. The detail consists of an extra trooper who parks at the accident scene. Although they look like standard backup, the extra trooper’s job is to monitor passing motorists.
The ante has been raised even more by a change in the penalties; officials are hoping that significant fines and suspensions will get the attention of those who are ignoring these laws. Fines will be increased if a driver is impaired or there is damage to either people or property. There is also a mandatory court appearance and a driver’s license suspension based on the severity of the accident. Civil and criminal penalties can also be added.
It is clear that Move Over laws are necessary to protect first responders on the nation’s roads. Yet, since the first such law was passed in 1996, these unnecessary deaths have continued. State officials must continue to raise public awareness because, as Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White stated, “first responders deserve to finish their shift and go home to their families.”