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Va. State Police Warning Drivers To Move Over

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By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008

Last year, after one of its troopers was killed by a passing car while standing on the side of a highway, Virginia State Police decided to produce a public service announcement to warn drivers to move over or slow down. As Trooper Jeff H. Rasnick stood on the side of Route 460 near Blacksburg, Va., preparing to read that message, he was nearly hit by a car.

Then, to pile irony upon irony, Rasnick was sitting in a car along Interstate 81 north of Roanoke last week with his emergency lights on, writing a ticket to a driver he had pulled over. Suddenly, a tractor-trailer veered off the highway and slammed into the side of his car, sending him to the hospital with back and shoulder injuries. The truck driver sped off and is being sought.

"It's frightening. It really is," said Col. W. Steven Flaherty, state police superintendent. "Had that truck hit another six to 10 inches to the right, [Rasnick's] car would have rolled up under that darn trailer. It's the most dangerous thing we do, stop vehicles and have to work on the side of busy primary highways."

In the first two weeks of May, state police had three eye-opening close calls. In addition to the incident involving Rasnick on May 13, Trooper J.T. Mahalik's cruiser was struck from behind as he sat on the shoulder of Interstate 66 near Centreville on May 1. The force of that impact, allegedly caused by a drunk driver, knocked another man in Mahalik's car unconscious and set the cruiser on fire, forcing a badly injured Mahalik to rescue the man from the burning car.

A week later, also on I-66 near Centreville, a Dodge Caravan veered out of control near another stopped cruiser, this one manned by Trooper K.J. Brown. The Caravan didn't hit the trooper but caused a three-vehicle chain reaction, then spun into an embankment and burst into flames. Brown dashed over and rescued the unconscious driver, suffering smoke inhalation and burns in the process.

Today, state police are re-launching the Move Over campaign with an event in Arlington County, hoping to remind the public that if an emergency vehicle is stopped on the shoulder of a highway, Virginia law requires drivers to change lanes away from the stopped vehicle or slow down and pass with caution if they cannot change lanes. A violation is punishable by up to a $2,500 fine and 12 months in jail.

No formal statistics are kept on troopers struck or nearly struck, police commanders said. Flaherty estimated eight such incidents have occurred since December and said two troopers were hurt seriously.

State police started a Move Over committee last year, after Trooper Robert A. Hill was struck and killed by a Cadillac while he was working a traffic stop in Southampton County, Va., in November 2006. Capt. Richard A. Denney of Salem, Va., who heads the committee, said troopers thought the public wasn't really aware that it wasn't just a good idea, but also the law, to change lanes when approaching a police vehicle by the side of the road.

"We've got close to 2,000 sworn officers; they're making numerous traffic stops on a daily basis," Denney said. "I think most troopers have a story to tell about a close call."

Ignorance of the law is only part of the problem, Flaherty said.

"Everybody is giving attention to everything other than their driving," he said, citing cellphones, stereos, iPods and BlackBerries to name a few distractions. "There are so many things going on in the car, and in our lives today, that each one of us really have to take the time to think about driving."

Flaherty said he spends at least two hours on the road daily and makes the occasional traffic stop.

"I try to pay attention to the traffic, and it seems to me the message is starting to get out," he said. "I see people moving over."

But at the same time, he hears and sees the stories of troopers being hit or nearly hit.

Flaherty said the Move Over law doesn't apply to just stopped police cars.

"We've got a lot of people out there who do services, like wreckers and ambulances and [Virginia Department of Transportation] vehicles and workers; they're just as vulnerable," Flaherty said. "It needs to become institutionalized for all drivers to move over or else drive by cautiously."

The video of Rasnick's public service announcement, which includes footage of another state trooper's car being struck in June, is available athttp://www.vsp.state.va.us.


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