By Sara Jean Green
Seattle Times staff reporter
Drivers who speed past emergency vehicles stopped on state highways or fail to give first-responders more room will face hefty new penalties beginning Jan. 1.
The state's new "Emergency Zone Law" builds on the 2007 "Move Over Law," creating a 200-foot zone around stationary emergency vehicles that have their lights activated — including patrol cars, fire engines, tow trucks and state Department of Transportation (DOT) vehicles, according to the State Patrol.
The enhanced law is meant to offer greater protection to first-responders, said Capt. Steve Burns, commander of the State Patrol's District 2, which covers King County. Speeding fines in the emergency zones will double, and fines for failing to slow down and safely move over will increase from $124 to $248, he said.
"This gives the law a little bit more bite," said Burns at a news briefing Tuesday morning in a AAA garage bay in Seattle.
Under the existing law, motorists traveling on a roadway with at least two lanes in their direction of travel must move over a lane from the shoulder when approaching a stationary emergency vehicle with its lights activated. They're also required to slow down and proceed with caution.
On roadways with only one lane in their direction of travel, motorists must pass to the left of an emergency vehicle if they're able to safely do so, while yielding the right of way to all vehicles traveling in the opposite direction.
The law remains the same under the "Emergency Zone Law" but creates the 200-foot zones in front and behind emergency vehicles, doubling the penalty for failing to slow down or safely move over within the zone.
In 2008, a year after the "Move Over Law" went into effect, 30 patrol cars were hit by motorists on state highways. Last year, an additional 28 patrol vehicles were hit by drivers during roadside traffic stops and other investigations, Burns said.
One of those vehicles was assigned to State Patrol Sgt. Dan Atchison. In October 2008, he and other troopers were tracking an escaped sex offender and had set up a containment zone on east Interstate 90 near North Bend. When two speeding vehicles came around a bend, one hit the other and then careened into Atchison's patrol car, which had its lights on and was parked in a median to the left of the highway.
Two of his troopers "had to jump in the ditch" to avoid being hit by Atchison's car, which was shoved off the road.
Atchison's patrol car was totaled and the driver who hit him was cited for speeding and following another vehicle too closely. The 15-year patrol veteran suffered injuries to his knee and lower back. "I went to the hospital, and I've been sore ever since," Atchison said.
But Burns and other officials who attended the news briefing said it's not just troopers who are at risk from impaired, speeding and distracted drivers. In September, tow-truck driver Tony Padilla, 51, of Burien, was hooking up a disabled vehicle on southbound Interstate 5 in Seattle when he was fatally struck by a vehicle. The driver and passenger both fled the scene but were later arrested. The driver has been accused of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Between April 2009 and Nov. 30 of this year, troopers contacted 2,940 drivers and issued 592 citations under the "Move Over Law," according to the patrol.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org