'Move Over' laws save lives. So why don't drivers move over?

move over


A 2,700-mile round trip to California recently was a chance to get reacquainted with the rogues of the open road:

  • Speeders. I’m talking about those doing 100-plus. These are also the careening multi-lane changers. They must think they’re in Formula 1.
  • Left-lane campers. In one spot on I-5 in the Central Valley, 20-30 cars were stacked in the passing lane. Just two were in the right lane. When everybody claims to be passing, nobody’s passing.
  • Tailgaters, the scourge that will always be with us. If we all expanded our following distances, we wouldn’t have traffic jams. Try telling these guys that.

But these offenses are committed by just a few drivers. We’re here to talk about a bad trait that’s almost universal:

Nobody’s moving over.

Meaning, few seem to observe the Move Over laws. These laws, which exist in every state, require drivers to move over a lane to provide a safe space away from police, tow providers, firefighters or emergency medical crews working on the roadside. Some states even require you to move over for literally any vehicle on the shoulder.

It makes a lot of sense, considering the 70 mph delta between you and a stationary object — one that human beings might pop out of.

Anecdotally, there’s not much moving over happening. This is a pet peeve, and I’ve watched the roads for it a long time now. Is it ignorance? Apathy?

AAA blames widespread ignorance, as does NHTSA, which estimates that “one-third of Americans are not aware of these laws.” This despite AAA and state agencies running PSA campaigns. But if ignorance explains a third of drivers, that means most of us know about the law but casually ignore it.

Occasionally, good intentions are thwarted by jerks: A month ago, I signaled a lane change and someone sped up to actively block it. The trooper on the shoulder ahead had his flashing lights going, so the purpose of the lane change was pretty damn clear.

Once on this California trip, nobody moved over for a patrol car with one of those sequential amber light bars that literally signals you to move left.

Don’t have space to move over? Then the law says to slow down. Maybe some are doing that, but it’s not obvious. 

(This just in Sunday night as I wrap up this piece: Two troopers working a three-car accident at night, one in the ditch. Watched a dozen cars pass, not one moved over. A few slowed down, slightly. Undoubtedly to rubberneck.

Grim statistics

Hundreds of law enforcement officers have died in vehicle crashes over the past few decades, according to various sets of federal data for different timeframes. It’s not clear how many of those occurred roadside when struck inside or outside of their cruisers. But a report for 2019 had this specific detail: 16 officers were killed that year by vehicles while on foot. So that gives you an idea. Sixteen officers with 16 families.

The AAA, which was key to getting Move Over laws passed, has been on a jihad about this for years, not just because of the danger it poses to cops but to roadside assistance workers such as the AAA’s tow truck drivers. In a 2021 report, AAA said 14 tow drivers had been killed so far that year as of the time of writing — and it was only August. In a report this year, AAA concluded that road workers’ deaths could be triple what’s known because they’re often just labeled in police reports as “pedestrians.”

A related problem is highway work zones, where lanes are often blocked off and traffic constricted, so moving over is impractical and limiting speed is the only option. We’re all familiar with those zones, with heavy signage and fine multipliers — yet we often see those speed limits ignored. The need for these speed limits becomes clear when you hear the federal statistics. They are alarming:

  • From 1982 through 2020, 29,493 people (about 776 per year) died in work zone crashes. This is workers, drivers, passengers, bystanders.
  • 2002 was the worst: 1,186 died in work zones that year. Since then, deaths declined steadily to an annual average of 635 in 2008-2014. But after that they increased to an average of 794 in 2015-2020.
  • Given what we know about increased speeding in the post-pandemic years, it will not be surprising to hear that this number has gone up.

Summer’s coming, it’s work zone season. You’re going to encounter a lot of potential danger in the months ahead.  

‘We’re seeing more speeding and erratic behavior’

In my state alone, the Washington State Department of Transportation reports that 10 people died in work zone crashes last year. Multiply that by 50 states, and the death tolls above do seem plausible. Beyond the fatalities, WSDOT reports there were 1,676 work zone crashes in 2019. This was followed by a decline during the pandemic, but last year the number of work zone crashes bumped back up to 1,228. Mind you, this is in just one state.

“Far too many of our workers have had close calls, serious injuries and even deaths in our work zones. It’s hard to find a crew that hasn’t had an injury or numerous close calls,” said WSDOT’s Christina Werner. “Most road workers can recount incidents where they had to take action to avoid tragedy due to drivers entering work zones.

“We’re seeing more speeding and erratic behavior in work zones – which puts everyone at risk.”

The Washington State Patrol tells me that over the past five years, its troopers pulled over 12,547 drivers for Move Over violations. Which didn’t sound like all that many, probably a drop in the bucket of violators who weren’t pulled over. Turns out it’s a hard violation to enforce.

“Often these violations are experienced by our troopers or other law enforcement officers while they are currently on a traffic stop or at a collision scene,” said WSP Sgt. Chelsea Hodgson. “Unless there is another unit actively in the area that is able to observe and then contact the driver, many of these simply go witnessed and unenforced due to having to manage the incident at hand. Often if there is a second unit on scene, and the offense is egregious enough, they can and will contact the driver who failed to move over or slow down.”

Head on a swivel

It shouldn’t take getting a ticket. The need to move over is obvious, it’s common sense.

So why isn’t everyone doing it? A common fault when driving is simply not looking far enough down the road — most of us could probably do a better job at that. So perhaps people just aren’t spotting these situations in time to move over. That’s the charitable explanation, “just don’t care” is the less kind.

AAA’s advice is, “Remain alert, avoid distractions and focus on the task of driving.” Then provide the courtesy of a wide berth.

Have a safe summer, everyone.




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