TRAFFIC CONTROL CONCEPTS FOR INCIDENT CLEARANCE
In response to a growing number of first responder fatalities at incident sites, “move over” laws have been adopted by the majority of states to provide a buffer area between moving traffic and the responders. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund more than 150 law enforcement officers were killed from 1997 to 2006, after being struck by vehicles along America’s highways. 3 As of 2007, all but six states and Washington, D.C. had enacted some type of move over law. Information on this law by state can be found at http://www.moveoveramerica.com, a Web site sponsored by the National Safety Commission and its association members. 3
There is also growing acknowledgement, given the volume of vehicle crashes, especially in the large metropolitan regions, that there are not enough resources available to physically respond to every incident scene in a timely manner. The intent of “Move It” or “Steer It/Clear It” laws is to reduce the demand on first responder resources and provide for quick clearance to reduce the impact on already congested roadways resulting from a relatively minor collision not requiring any other response besides law enforcement for the purpose of documenting the crash. Legislation has been passed in about half of the states establishing laws requiring drivers involved in minor property damage collisions (no injuries) to move the vehicles from the travel lanes, exchange information, and report the crash information through submission of a proper form. 4
The laws referred to as “Authority Removal” or “Hold Harmless” Laws establish the authority of public agencies to immediately remove or cause to remove disabled / wrecked vehicles or split cargo blocking travel lanes by immediate means as well as indemnify the agencies from liability for any damage caused in the process of the removal. ”Authority Tow” laws are similar in objective as authority removal laws but they address tow service liability exemption if they are directed by law enforcement to remove the vehicles / cargo.
In addition to this legislation, there is a proactive movement by various responder agencies to enter into interagency agreements, solidifying the commitment to work toward the goal of safe, quick clearance of incidents. These types of agreements are often referred to as “open road” policies.
This section highlights some of the laws and the key points now in affect as well as some of the types of open road policies.
Move Over Laws
Motorists are increasingly being required to slow down or move over to adjacent lanes when they approach emergency or public service vehicles on the shoulder of the highway. At times, there can be conflicting goals during the management of an incident with respect to protecting people and property at the scene and maintaining traffic flow. Stopping traffic flow altogether may provide a safer area for personnel at the incident scene, but this will often result in the unintended consequence of secondary crashes in the resultant traffic queue, some of which may be more severe than the original incident. Insufficient traffic control at the scene can compromise responders’ safety by placing them too close to vehicles moving at highway speeds. Requiring passing motorists to slow down or move over to an adjacent lane strikes a balance between providing a safer area in which responders may work and allowing traffic to continue to flow.
Within the United States, almost all of the states have some form of move over law in which passing vehicles are required to slow down and/or safely move to an adjacent lane when approaching an authorized emergency vehicle that is parked or otherwise stopped on or next to a multilane highway. When lane changes are impossible, prohibited, or unsafe, requirements for speed reductions vary from what is considered “reasonable and proper” to specific reductions in miles per hour (e.g., 20 mph). Authorized emergency vehicles typically include first responders, such as law enforcement and fire-rescue vehicles with flashing or rotating blue, white, or red lights. In some areas, “civilian” responders, such as courtesy / service patrols and tow trucks, are considered as authorized emergency vehicles and may also be entitled to the same protections under move over laws. 4
- Move over laws support incident scene traffic control by:
- Providing additional protection for incident responders and motorists at the incident scene,
- Allowing safe traffic movement around or past the incident scene to aid in overall congestion recovery,
- Reducing secondary crashes, and
- Allowing the incident scene to be cleared more quickly.
States whose move over laws include notes of particular interest include: Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Highlights for each state’s move over laws are presented below. This is a representative sample, not a comprehensive listing.
Florida (Section 316.126) 5 – Requires motorists to slow to a speed of 20 miles per hour (mph) below the posted speed limit when the speed limit is 25 mph or greater; or motorists must travel at 5 mph when the posted speed limit is 20 mph or less.
North Carolina (Section 20-157) 6 – Includes department of transportation and public service vehicles to the list of vehicles for which move over law applies.
Wisconsin (Section 346.072) 7 – Requires passing vehicles to slow down or move over when authorized emergency vehicles displaying visual signals are parked or standing on or within 12 feet of the roadway.
Minnesota (Section 169.18) 8 – Requires motorists passing a parked emergency vehicle to reduce their speed and move to a lane away from the emergency vehicle; and provides penalties in the form of a surcharge equal to the amount of a fine imposed for a speed violation.
South Carolina (Section 56-5-1538) 9 – Requires motorists to slow down, proceed with caution, and change lanes when approaching stationary emergency vehicles displaying flashing red; red and white; blue; red and blue lights; or amber or yellow warning lights.
Tennessee (Section 55-8-132) 10 – Makes specific provisions for proceeding with caution and making lane changes when possible for stationary recovery vehicles and highway maintenance vehicles that are using authorized flashing lights.
Move It (aka Steer It/Clear It) Laws
Move It, or Steer It/Clear It, laws require motorists involved in crashes to take actions that support quick clearance initiatives. Traffic incidents are categorized as disablements, property damage only (PDO), and injury crashes. When involved in incidents, motorists are required to move their vehicles from the travel lanes if they are able to do so. The intent of move it laws is to relocate disabled vehicles from the through lanes where they could be in danger of being struck, perhaps again, or otherwise worsening the original incident scenario. If the vehicles can be moved to the shoulder, or otherwise off the roadway, the incident scene is safer for everyone and traffic flow is less impaired.
Move it laws vary in their application with regard to the extent of disablement and severity of each incident. Some laws require vehicle relocation only for PDO crashes; while others go so far as to require relocation for all injury and fatal crashes. These laws also provide guidance for communication to authorities to begin the incident clearance process.
Samples of the move it laws are presented below. This is a representative sample and not a comprehensive listing.
Florida (Sections 316.027 & 316.061) 5 – Requires that stopped motorists do not obstruct traffic more than necessary. If a damaged vehicle is obstructing traffic, the driver must make every reasonable effort to move the vehicle or have it moved so as not to obstruct the regular traffic flow.
Connecticut (Section 14-224) 11 – Requires that motorists involved in PDO accidents on limited-access highways immediately move their vehicle to a non-travel area adjacent to the accident site, if possible, without risk of further damage to property or injury to any person.
Arizona (Section 28-674) 13 – Allows the driver of a motor vehicle involved in an accident, or any other occupant of the motor vehicle who possess a valid driver license, to remove the motor vehicle from the main travel portion of the roadway to a safe location on the shoulder, emergency lane, or median, if a motor vehicle traffic accident occurs and serious physical injury or death is not apparent and if both of the following apply:
- The motor vehicle can be moved safely.
- The motor vehicle is capable of being normally and safely driven, does not require towing, and can be operated under its own power in its customary manner without further damage or hazard to the motor vehicle, to traffic elements, or to the roadway.
The motorist involved in a traffic accident may request any person who possesses a valid driver’s license to remove the motor vehicle, and the person requested to remove the motor vehicle may comply with the request.
The driver or any other person removing a motor vehicle from the main traveled portion of the roadway before the arrival of a police officer is not liable or at fault regarding the cause of the traffic accident solely by reason of moving the motor vehicle.
Authority Removal (aka Hold Harmless) and Authority Tow Laws
As of 2003, 14 states had passed authority removal (hold harmless) laws. These laws establish the authority of designated public agencies, including departments of transportation and state, county, and local law enforcement, to remove or cause to remove:
- Driver-attended disabled or wrecked vehicles,
- Spilled cargo or personal property blocking a travel lane,
- Or otherwise creating a hazard to the flow of adjacent traffic. 14
With the passage of authority removal laws and policies, incident responders can take an active and immediate role to restore the roadway to normal conditions without fear of damage liability claims since these laws indemnify the agency for damage caused in the removal process. Samples of the authority removal laws and policies are presented below. This is a representative sample and not a comprehensive listing.
Tennessee (Section 54-16-113) 15 – Authorizes the department of public safety, DOT, or local law enforcement to immediately remove or cause to be removed any disabled/ wrecked vehicle, spilled cargo, or other personal property obstructing traffic to an alternate location within the immediate vicinity.
Rhode Island (Section 24-8-42) 15 – Authorizes a public safety agency, if an emergency is created by a disabled/wrecked vehicle on a limited access facility, to remove or cause to remove the vehicle(s). The law also indemnifies the agency or its agents against damage claims incurred by the emergency measures used to remove the vehicle .
Utah (Policy UDOT 06C-36) 16 – Allows Incident Management Team (IMT) operators or other designees of the region to remove disabled vehicles that present a traffic hazard from the roadway. This written policy is supported in large part by the close association and relationship between UDOT and the Utah Highway Patrol.
There is also legislation that has extended the concept of protecting responders from potential damages to tow truck operators. These laws may be referred to as authority tow laws. This type of law may also direct the removal of the disabled vehicles or split cargo to some type of legal parking or storage area. In 2007, Georgia amended its Official Code to limit the damage liability of towing services if they are ordered to remove vehicles or obstructions from the roadway determined to be a threat to safety or to mitigate traffic congestion. 17 Washington State is also considering this type of legislation. Other samples of authority tow laws are listed below.
Oregon (Section 819.120) 15 – Authorizes tow services to remove and take custody of disabled, abandoned or unattended vehicles that is in such a location that constitutes a hazard or obstruction to flowing traffic. The possible locations include vehicles parked so that any part of the vehicle extends within the paved portion of the travel lane, highway shoulder or bicycle lane of any freeway within a city limits during peak travel hours, within 1,000 feet of the area where a freeway exit or entrance ramp meets the freeway; or of any highway during daylight hours if the vehicle presents a clear danger.
Virginia (Section 46.2-1212.1) 15 – Allows law enforcement to remove a vehicle involved in a crash or experiencing a mechanical breakdown if the vehicle creates a traffic hazard and if the owner does not move it; this is at the expense of the owner. In the event of a crash or incident, law enforcement may require the removal, without the consent of the owner or carrier, of the vehicle, cargo, or other personal property that has been damaged or spilled within the right-of-way and is blocking the roadway. The owner and carrier of the removed / disposed vehicle, cargo, or personal property shall reimburse the department of transportation, state police, local law enforcement agency, and local public safety agencies for all costs incurred in the removal and subsequent disposition of the property.
Open Roads Policies
Open Roads policies formally state the agencies’ goals in partnership to remove vehicles, cargo, and debris from roadways with the intention of restoring safe, orderly traffic flow after motor vehicle crashes and other roadway incidents. These goals often include timeframes for incident clearance that start with the arrival of the first responding officer. Responding agencies have solidified their responsibility to do whatever is safe and reasonable to reduce the risk to responders, secondary crashes, and incident delays. It is generally recognized that vehicle or cargo damage may occur when clearing the roadway; however, the highest priority is given to restoring traffic to normal conditions. The accepted premise is that roadways should not be closed or restricted any longer than absolutely necessary.
Such agreements, generally known as open roads policies, define agency responsibilities for incident response. For example, law enforcement agencies commit to performing investigations as quickly as possible and may require non-critical portions of the investigation to occur when lighter traffic conditions prevail. They agree to close only the travel lanes necessary to deal with the incident, and they work with transportation agencies to set up appropriate traffic control, establish alternate routes, and expedite traffic movement at the incident scene. Law enforcement may allow damaged vehicles to be relocated to accident investigation sites or other locations for safe completion of investigations. Departments of transportation in turn commit to responding with appropriate resources for traffic control and incident clean-up within specified time frames, ensuring safe work zones for responders and the motoring public. Transportation agencies may agree to have additional heavy equipment at their disposal to assist tow operators in quicker clearing of blocked lanes. Most importantly, these incident response partners commit to work together to ensure all motorist needs are being met in a safe, professional, and efficient manner.
States with open roads policies include: Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Tennessee, and Washington. Highlights for each state are presented below. This is a representative sample, not a comprehensive listing.
Florida 18 – This agency agreement, between the Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Highway Patrol, requires clearance of incidents from the roadway within 90 minutes with the understanding that more complex scenarios could require additional time. Research and training of advanced technologies, equipment, and methods for quickly re-opening blocked travel lanes is required.
Georgia 19 – This agreement was executed by the Georgia Governor on behalf of state incident response agencies. It provides guidance for the Metro Atlanta area in the quick, safe clearance of freeway traffic incidents. Agencies are required to work together to minimize traffic flow disruptions through implementation of initiatives from Metro Atlanta’s Traffic Incident Management Strategic Vision. The agreement authorizes establishment of local traffic incident management teams, requires formal training and certification for towing and recovery operators, and provides monetary incentives for quick (90 minute) clearance of incidents with significant traffic impacts. It also allows coroners and medical examiners to remove decedents’ bodies from the roadway to facilitate clearance whenever possible.
Maryland 18 – This interagency agreement, between Maryland State Highway Administration, Maryland Department of Transportation, and Maryland State Police, recognizes that clearance activities may damage vehicles or cargo, but places greater priority on public safety. This agreement has some discussion of liability acceptance to the extent that Maryland’s Tort Claims Act allows for damages. Personnel have the responsibility to reopen travel lanes as quickly as possible when it is safe to do so.
Tennessee 18 – There is an agreement between the Tennessee Department of Safety (DOS), Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP), Commercial Vehicle Enforcement (CVE), and Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) requiring expeditious crash investigations and allows for relocation of vehicles involved in non-injury collisions. The THP is authorized to call for wrecker services when zone wreckers do not have the capability to clear a crash; THP can also override owner requests for specific towing companies when this action is not expected to be the fastest response possible. CVE works actively with the trucking industry to encourage proper loading and operating procedures to minimize truck rollovers; and DOS includes information in the Driver’s Handbook and other publications. TDOT establishes policies and procedures to provide support at incident scenes. All agencies commit to work together for continuous improvement in their clearance practices.
Washington 20 – A joint operations policy statement between the Washington Department of Transportation and the Washington State Patrol requires agency mission and organizational alignment for data sharing, traffic management, coordinated public communications, traveler information, and incident response. It also encourages the use of technologies to expedite investigations. Incident command system (unified command) is established through this joint policy statement and it supports planning for planned and unplanned events. Specific requirements for commercial vehicle operations and security are provided along with outlines for new initiatives to reduce crashes. This policy statement requires comprehensive performance measurement and analysis.