DOVER — Any time a first responder is killed on the side of a road while performing his or her duty, an alarm is sounded, calling for motorists to slow down and move over when encountering vehicles on the shoulder.
The July 4 death of 32-year-old Glenn Ewing, a AAA tow truck driver in Ohio, highlights the risk faced by emergency workers in Delaware and around the country.
Mr. Ewing was killed after he was struck by a car while placing a disabled vehicle on a flatbed on the shoulder of a roadway.
More than 80 drivers participated in a procession in honor of Mr. Ewing during his funeral services Sunday.
“A combination of speeding and failing to move over for emergency responders, roadside workers and tow operators is surely dangerous, if not deadly,” said Lt. Tracy Condon, assistant director of traffic for the Delaware State Police. “We want motorists to know it’s imperative for them to at least slow down if they are approaching the flashing lights of a stopped emergency, police, tow truck or (Delaware Department of Transportation) vehicle when they are unable to safely change lanes.”
Although both the Delaware Office of Highway Safety and the Delaware Office of Emergency Services said they did not have numbers available on crashes involving roadside emergency vehicles, Eric Creek, roadside assistance supervisor for AAA Mid-Atlantic in Delaware, said every emergency worker knows the danger of working on the side of busy highways and roads.
“When one of our colleagues is lost, we’re all affected,” Mr. Creek said. “(Mr. Ewing) died while helping a driver on the side of the road. It can happen to any one of us.”
Mr. Creek said that Mr. Ewing’s death illustrates why “move-over” laws are critical to safety. The best thing drivers can do to keep someone on the side of the road safe is slow down and move over into the next lane if possible.
“We can’t stress enough how important it is that drivers move over and change lanes when they see AAA or any other first responder working in and around traffic,” Mr. Creek said. “By doing so, you are also potentially saving someone’s life.”
Move-over laws exist in all 50 states. AAA and other traffic-safety advocates have been instrumental in the passage of these laws to better protect tow truck drivers and other first responders.
Delaware’s move-over law — enacted in 2007 — requires drivers to slow down when approaching emergency vehicles that have their lights flashing and to move over a lane if that can be safely achieved.
“With traffic volumes returning to pre-pandemic levels, we need everyone to take extra care behind the wheel to prevent avoidable tragedies,” said DelDOT Secretary Nicole Majeski. “Slowing down and moving over to give those who are working or rendering assistance on our roads saves lives.”
DSP said troopers cite hundreds of drivers for violating the state’s move-over law each year.
A record 346 motorists in Delaware were cited by state police for violating the move-over law in 2016, followed by 219 (2017), 213 (2018), 253 (2019), 125 (2020) and 52 this year, as of Wednesday.
“The Delaware State Police are continuously working to make the roadways safer with our traffic-enforcement efforts, as well as educating the public,” said Lt. Condon. “We have worked move-over law enforcement efforts in the past and made many motorists aware of a law they didn’t know existed. We currently are focusing on slowing speeding motorists down across the state.”
Distracted driving can also contribute to these types of incidents. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that drivers are four times more likely to crash if they are talking on a cellphone while driving and eight times more likely to be in a crash if texting.
“Drivers talking on a phone or otherwise distracted may not readily see a vehicle on the side of the road in enough time to safely move over to the next lane,” said Ken Grant, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic in Delaware. “In safety, split seconds count.”
Fatal crashes on rise in Delaware
Charles “C.R.” McLeod, spokesman for DelDOT, said that with more traffic on the roads as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, roadway fatalities are on the rise overall.
There have been 60 fatal crashes on Delaware roads from Jan. 1 until July 11 this year, the most there has been during the first half of the year for the past four years.
There were 55 fatal crashes in 2018, 53 in 2019 and 56 last year during that time period.
“Over the past four years, we have unfortunately averaged 56 fatalities on Delaware roads from Jan. 1 to July 11,” Mr. McLeod said. “While not a significant spike, we are concerned that the 60 fatalities this year are the most during this time period over the past four years, and that speeding, aggressive and inattentive driving and not using seat belts are direct causes of a majority of these fatalities.”
DelDOT is also reporting a disturbing trend of vehicles crashing into its truck-mounted attenuators, devices attached to the department’s trucks that are meant to absorb the impact of crashes and protect nearby workers.
Normally, DelDOT said there’s an average of one crash a year with these devices, but so far this year, there have been six, Mr. McLeod said.
“This again speaks to drivers speeding and not paying attention to the road,” he added.
With the lure of the beaches and people ready to get back outside following almost a year-and-a-half of pandemic restrictions, traffic volumes will continue to grow as the summer heats up.
“We can expect to see heavy traffic volumes across the state over the second half of the summer, and drivers need to take the responsibility they have behind the wheel seriously,” Mr. McLeod said. “Slowing down, using seat belts and driving attentively greatly reduces the chances of being involved in a serious or fatal crash.
“We also continue to work with law enforcement and the Office of Highway Safety on education and enforcement.”