Traffic Incident Management Quick Clearance Laws:
A National Review of Best Practices
This publication may contain dated technical, contact, and link information.
Role and Relevance of Quick Clearance Laws
To demonstrate the importance of Quick Clearance legislation in the broader TIM process and to provide limited background information regarding its historical development, this report includes: (1) an overview of Quick Clearance programs, (2) the described role of legislation in Quick Clearance programs, and (3) evolutionary information related to each of the Quick Clearance laws under consideration.
In the broader TIM context, Quick Clearance is the practice of rapidly and safely removing temporary obstructions – including disabled or wrecked vehicles, debris, and spilled cargo - from the roadway to increase the safety of incident responders by minimizing their exposure to adjacent passing traffic, reduce the probability of secondary incidents, and relieve overall congestion levels and delay.
While many conventional TIM practices rely on responder operations, successful Quick Clearance involves and relies upon driver behavior to:
- change lanes and/or reduce vehicle speeds when approaching an incident scene (Move Over laws) and
- relocate their vehicle to a safe refuge out of the travel lane following a minor incident (Driver Removal laws)
In addition, Quick Clearance legislation provides authority to TIM responders from public agencies and private industry to remove property at the scene (Authority Removal laws).
In support of Quick Clearance practices, a formal Quick Clearance program consists of various: (1) operational procedures, (2) equipment and infrastructure, and (3) laws and policies aimed at affecting the safe and timely removal of traffic incidents.
Distinct quick clearance operational procedures commonly focus on the removal of: (1) vehicles involved in minor incidents, (2) heavy vehicles, (3) non-hazardous cargo spills, and (4) incidental vehicle fluid spills, as well as crash investigation procedures, with the common objective of reducing incident clearance time.
Appropriate equipment and infrastructure is required to support these operational procedures. Freeway service patrols equipped with push bumpers can greatly enhance minor incident removal. Ready access to heavy-duty tow trucks, dump trucks, front-end loaders, sweepers, or air cushion recovery systems helps to speed the clearance of large truck-involved incidents and cargo spills. New technologies, such as total station surveying equipment and photogrammetry, can significantly reduce crash investigation time for law enforcement officers.
Quick Clearance practices often benefit from appropriate laws and policies. Move Over, Driver Removal, and Authority Removal laws are the subject of this report. However, additional legislation supporting TIM efforts may include laws that:
- require drivers involved in crashes to stop and remain at the scene;
- give agencies the authority to remove abandoned vehicles;
- explicitly establish responder roles at the scene of a traffic incident;
- protect drivers and/or responders from liability resulting from good faith actions,
- authorize certification of a fatality by a designated on-site response agency in place of the medical examiner and/or allow the immediate removal of the deceased from the roadway; exempt wreckers from over-weight vehicle limits so they are legally able to remove heavy vehicles expeditiously; and
- enable transportation and/or environmental agencies a means to recover incident clearance costs they incur from responsible parties.
In the absence of formal legislation, States may execute memoranda of understanding to foster cooperative relationships and solidify commitments to Quick Clearance at the highest administrative levels.
Various supporting activities to publicize and enforce these laws also exist. For example, States may utilize public service announcements (PSAs) or partnerships with the automobile insurance industry to increase awareness of Driver Removal laws. Public agencies, particularly transportation and law enforcement agencies, may also successfully partner to improve both public awareness and enforcement of Move Over laws within a State.
The combination of appropriate operational procedures, equipment and infrastructure, and laws and policies in a formal Quick Clearance program helps to minimize improper or delayed responder actions, prolonged crash investigations, and indecision-driven liability concerns. Cooperation among public safety agencies (i.e., law enforcement, fire and rescue, and emergency medical services), transportation agencies, the private towing and recovery industry; and the motoring public is critical to the success of any Quick Clearance program.
Quick Clearance practices, within the broader TIM context yield numerous direct benefits for motorists, responders, and the larger environment, such as decreases in:
- non-recurrent congestion delay;
- secondary incidents, including those involving responders;
- response time to traffic incidents and other emergencies;
- vehicle fuel consumption;
- vehicle emissions;
- motorist stress levels;
- aggressive driving behavior;
- freight movement impacts in the region;
- regional economy impacts;
- local tourism impacts; and
- future potential land use impacts (Dunn and Latoski 2003).
The public has become increasingly sensitive to the growing costs of congestion, citing the delays caused by traffic congestion as their top community transportation concern (Dunn and Latoski 2003). The 2007 Urban Mobility Report states that motorists in 437 U.S. urban areas incurred $78.2 billion in congestion costs in 2005, with 52 to 58 percent of the total motorist delay attributed to crashes and vehicle breakdowns (Schrank and Lomax 2007). Roadway capacity reductions exceed the physical blockage resulting from an incident, exacerbating congestion and delay levels. The temporary obstruction of one and two travel lanes along a three-lane freeway are estimated to reduce the available capacity of the facility by 63 and 77 percent, respectively (Smith, et al. 2003). Incidents located wholly on the shoulder of a roadway are estimated to reduce the available capacity of the facility by up to 17 percent, depending on the nature of the incident (Highway Capacity Manual 2000). Current TIM efforts are credited with reducing annual delay by 129.5 million hours with an associated cost savings of approximately $2.5 billion (Schrank and Lomax 2007). Cost savings attributable to reduced fuel consumption and harmful emissions are included in these estimates.
Incident impacts extend beyond travel delay and congestion to safety. Motorists directly involved in the incident are at risk for resulting injury or death. In addition, secondary incidents caused by unsuspecting approaching motorists may increase both the number and severity of injuries attributable to incidents and compound the impact of congestion and time taken to clear the roads. Responders to these incidents are also sometimes victims of secondary crashes. Since 2003, 59 law enforcement, 12 fire and rescue, and 54 highway maintenance personnel died after being struck by vehicles along the highway, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2008). Data on towing and recovery industry occupational fatalities is not well tracked. However, the Towing and Recovery Association of America (TRAA) anecdotally reports a loss upward of 100 towing operators in the line of service annually (2008). The occurrence of responder injury or "near misses" is much higher. Although no standard measure is defined to identify secondary incidents, most estimates suggest that between 14 to 18 percent of the total incidents are secondary in nature (National Conference on Traffic Incident Management 2002). Broader TIM practices have proven effective in reducing secondary incidents. For example, secondary incidents were reduced by 69 percent (from 676 to 210 in twelve months) with an associated annual cost savings of $1,611,054 (2003 dollars) in Atlanta, Georgia (Guin, et al. 2006).
Benefits attributable to individual program components – such as a Driver or Authority Removal laws - are difficult to distinguish. Instead, reported benefits generally reflect the synergistic effect of several Quick Clearance program elements. As one exception, Hamlin, et al. (2007) considered the benefits attributable to a Driver Removal law enacted in South Carolina. Microscopic simulation analysis estimated that implementation of the related legislation resulted in an 11 percent reduction in delay for minor incidents with one lane blocked. This reduced delay, in turn, resulted in an average cost savings of $1,682 per incident, which is significant when considering the number of minor incidents occurring on a daily basis in large metropolitan areas. Besides affecting congestion and its associated impacts, the authors cited benefits related to the safety of road users and incident response personnel.
Potential benefits attributable to TIM practices that relate to motorist comfort and behavior or longer-term regional and economic effects are not well quantified.
Operational procedures and supporting equipment/infrastructure often require enabling legislation to achieve their full potential for Quick Clearance. For example, the use of freeway service patrols equipped with push bumpers may lack effectiveness if responders are hesitant to clear incident-involved vehicles from the roadway because of uncertainties in their authority to do so or a fear of liability resulting from their actions. Companion Authority Removal laws afford incident responders the opportunity to assertively clear incidents without incurring unnecessary delay and without threat of liability if actions are performed in good faith and without gross negligence.
Ideally, States would develop and adopt consistent and comprehensive legislation covering all aspects of TIM. Complexities in developing and enforcing such diverse legislation have instead resulted in the development of more targeted laws that can be clearly articulated and equitably enforced. In addition to the Move Over, Driver Removal, and Authority Removal laws that are the subject of this report, additional legislation supporting TIM efforts include laws that:
- require drivers involved in crashes to stop and remain at the scene if possible, or if not, to return as soon as safely practical;
- give agencies the authority to remove abandoned vehicles (or other personal property) from the highway right of way, generally after some specified time period;
- explicitly establish the roles of transportation agencies and others in public safety, operations, and maintenance so that it is clear who is responsible for various functions in regards to traffic incidents;
- authorize certification of a fatality by a designated on-site response agency in place of the medical examiner and/or allow the immediate removal of the deceased from the roadway;
- exempt wreckers from over-weight vehicle limits so they are legally able to remove heavy vehicles expeditiously without having to obtain permits or waivers; and
- enable transportation and/or environmental agencies a means to recover the costs they paid to get the roadway cleared from responsible parties and that these recovered funds be returned to the agency, not the State's general fund (I-95 Corridor Coalition 2007).
Few States have each of these laws in place. Instead, States have most often pursued the passage of laws that are determined to be most necessary and beneficial in response to local conditions and needs.
In the absence of legislation explicitly addressing some aspect of TIM, interagency agreements or memoranda of understanding may be used to effectively establish good TIM, including Quick Clearance policies and practices. A key agreement supporting Quick Clearance efforts is an "Open Roads Policy" that binds agencies to Quick Clearance by setting implied or explicit goals for clearing traffic incidents from the roadway. Examples include Florida's "Open Roads Policy," Georgia's "Open Roads Policy," Maryland's "Removal of Vehicles from Roadway Interagency Agreement," New Hampshire's "Quick Clearance for Safety and Mobility Interagency Memorandum of Understanding," Tennessee's "Urgent Clearance of Highway Incidents and Safety at Incident Scenes Interagency Memorandum of Understanding," and Wisconsin's "Interagency Freeway Incident Clearance Policy Statement."
- mutual-aid agreements that commit jurisdictions to assist partners in the event of need;
- joint operating agreements that define the roles and responsibilities of dissimilar agencies in handling incidents and emergencies; and
- memoranda of understanding between:
- various agencies to share data and information;
- the medical examiner, public safety, and transportation agencies that authorizes certification of a fatality by a designated on-site response agency in place of the medical examiner and/or allows the immediate removal of the deceased from the roadway (under clearly stated conditions) prior to the medical examiner's arrival on the scene; and
- transportation and law enforcement agencies that establishes an agreement for transportation agency support in exchange for increased traffic enforcement services on designated facilities (I-95 Corridor Coalition 2007).
Quick Clearance legislation offers continuous support and statewide coverage, with few exceptions. When coupled with an effective public information campaign, Quick Clearance laws can enhance the safety of responders and motorists and dramatically reduce incident-related congestion and delay, particularly resulting from minor crashes. Quick Clearance of minor incidents from the roadway by motorists not only enhances the safety of those involved and the safety of approaching motorists, but also allows transportation and law enforcement personnel to focus on other duties.
Move Over Laws
Laws that require a driver to change lanes and/or reduce travel speed when approaching a stopped emergency vehicle have largely developed out of notable tragedies and related initiatives. In Illinois, Scott's Law was passed in 2000 after Lt. Scott Gillen of the Chicago Fire Department was struck by a passing vehicle. Similarly, North Carolina's Families for Roadside Safety responder safety advocacy group was founded to promote adoption of Move Over laws after two highway troopers were struck by vehicles and killed in the span of 20 months. Numerous other examples of responder tragedy can be cited as a motivating factor in the successful development of Move Over legislation.
Recent National initiatives include: (1) the development of an Incident Responders' Safety Model Law () involving the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances (NCUTLO), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and (2) various national public information initiatives intended to establish and educate motorists about Move Over laws.
In November 2006, NHTSA hosted a meeting of law enforcement, prosecutors, emergency responders, and other interested parties to assist in the development of a comprehensive "model program" to encourage first-responder safety among States. This effort included development of a model law supporting first responder safety. In addition to an identification of responder safety best practices and the development of related training materials, NHTSA worked closely with the NCUTLO and NCSL to develop a Move Over model law that requires drivers, at a minimum, to change lanes and/or slow down when approaching a stopped emergency vehicle. The goal of such legislation is to ensure the safety of emergency personnel while working in or around the roadway. Both the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the National Sheriffs' Association (NSA) have adopted resolutions in support of uniformity in Move Over laws.
"Move Over, America" is a partnership originally founded in 2007 by the National Safety Commission (NSC), the NSA and the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO). Most recently, the partnership has also received the full support of the American Association of State Troopers (AAST). The campaign is the first nationally coordinated effort to establish and educate motorists about Move Over laws.
In a complementary effort, the American Automobile Association (AAA) - in partnership with leading representatives for law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and state highway workers - initiated a year-long public information and legislative campaign aimed at reducing deaths and injuries among roadside workers and stranded motorists. The effort has two primary components: (1) enactment of Move Over laws that cover tow trucks and other roadside assistance vehicles in addition to law enforcement vehicles, fire trucks, and ambulances in all 50 states and (2) a national public awareness campaign that includes the use of public safety announcements and other publicity efforts.
Move Over laws are commonly included as extensions to pre-existing laws directing a driver to slow and pull to the side of the road to allow emergency vehicles with warning devices activated to pass. These laws have been modified to include driver guidance when approaching and passing stationary emergency vehicles along the roadside. Since Move Over laws are relatively new, there is little documented evidence to date regarding the impact of such laws in enhancing responder safety or the effectiveness of associated public awareness campaigns in achieving compliance from the motoring public. Anecdotally, responders have expressed concern over the lack of Move Over law awareness among drivers and the challenges faced by law enforcement personnel tasked with performing incident management duties and concurrently enforcing Move Over laws.
Driver Removal Laws
Driver Removal laws - also referred to as Fender Bender, Move It, or Steer It/Clear It laws - are considered key strategies for speeding clearance of non-injury, property damage only (PDO) crashes, which account for the majority of all crashes on U.S. roadways. These laws encourage or require drivers involved in incidents to move their vehicle out of the travel lanes if they can do so safely. In the case of a disablement involving an immobilized vehicle, Driver Removal laws commonly mandate that drivers immediately seek assistance to remove their vehicles from the travel lanes. Concurrent legislation or language that: (1) protects the driver from liability resulting from their actions or (2) waives at-fault determination regarding the cause of the incident as a result of moving their vehicle is often included to encourage drivers to expeditiously move their vehicles.
Driver Removal laws are becoming more important over time. As the levels of congestion build on U.S. roadways, transportation and law enforcement personnel meet increasing TIM demands, in the context of their other duties and responsibilities. Public agencies are challenged to function with ever-increasing constraints on personnel and resources. Driver Removal laws that require drivers to take response action not only enhance the safety of those involved and of approaching motorists, but also allow transportation and law enforcement personnel to focus on other duties.
Depending on interpretation by law enforcement personnel, Driver Removal laws may be synonymous with Driver Stop laws that require drivers involved in a crash to stop their vehicles without obstructing traffic more than necessary. The Uniform Vehicle Code, under Section 10-103, provides the following model language for Driver Stop laws:
Section 10-103. The driver of any vehicle involved in an accident resulting only in damage to a vehicle or other property which is driven or attended by any person shall immediately stop such vehicle at the scene of such accident or as close as possible, but shall forthwith return to and in every event shall remain at the scene of such accident until he has fulfilled the requirements of [Section] 10-104. Every such stop shall be made without obstructing traffic more than is necessary. Any person failing to stop or comply with said requirements under such circumstances shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be punished as provided in [Section] 17-101.
Kansas and Maryland, for example, both cite their State's Driver Stop law directly in promotional materials related to a driver's responsibilities for vehicle removal. Other States consider Driver Removal laws distinctly. Some States have also expanded the Uniform Vehicle Code model law to include injury and fatal crashes, in addition to non-injury, personal damage only crashes.
Revisions to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (2003) included language that supports the Quick Clearance of incidents, and specifically, the intent of Driver and Authority Removal laws. In Part 5, Chapter 6I, "Control of Traffic through Traffic Incident Management Areas," Section 6I.04 offers the following guidance: "When a minor traffic incident blocks a travel lane, it should be removed from that lane to the shoulder as quickly as possible."
More recently, the USDOT - through its Congestion Initiative and TIM program- has placed a special emphasis on the advancement of Driver Removal laws, in conjunction with full-function service patrols, high-level State Quick Clearance policy agreements, and integrated interagency communications. The Federal Highway Administration is promoting these strategies through awareness training, peer-to-peer exchange, and the provision of model legislation. As part of the aforementioned Incident Responders' Safety Model Law, model Driver Removal law language is included that directs the driver to "immediately move the vehicle to the shoulder or a designated are off the highway." At the time of this investigation, nearly half of all States have enacted Driver Removal laws; the Congestion Initiative seeks to encourage enactment of Driver Removal laws in all States and to improve consistency in wording (USDOT Congestion Initiative Focus on Incident Management Website).
Authority Removal Laws
In contrast to Driver Removal laws, Authority Removal laws provide authorization to a pre-designated set of public agencies - generally including State, county, and local law enforcement or State departments of transportation (DOTs) - to remove damaged or disabled vehicles and/or spilled cargo from the roadway that is determined to be a hazard. Driver and authority removal responsibilities may be defined within the same statute: if the driver is unwilling or unable to remove the vehicle or cargo, designated authorities may require or perform removal without consent of the owner.
Authority Removal laws may also include immediate tow-away policies to ensure the timely removal of disabled vehicles from roadway shoulders in highly congested, metropolitan areas. More commonly, separate Authority Tow laws are in place to support removal of incident-involved vehicles and/or cargo on the shoulder or roadway right-of-way to an off-site location (e.g., storage area, service station). Authority Removal laws focus on expediting the removal of damaged or disabled vehicles and spilled cargo from the travel lanes and immediate incident scene to a safe refuge in the same vicinity (e.g., adjacent frontage road).
To protect responders against liability resulting from their good faith actions, Hold Harmless laws or related language often accompanies Authority Removal laws. The same pre-designated agencies authorized to remove damaged or disabled vehicles and/or spilled cargo from the roadway, as well as any qualified responder working under the direction of these agencies, are protected under Hold Harmless laws.
Oftentimes, Authority Removal laws, and associated Hold Harmless laws, originally were enacted to ensure adequate accessibility for transportation agencies when performing roadside construction and maintenance duties and for emergency response vehicles en route to an emergency. Safety implications of damaged or disabled vehicles and/or spilled cargo on the roadway were of concern if the travel lanes were largely obstructed. More recently, Authority Removal laws have become important strategies for reducing incident-related congestion and delay and the scope of removal authority has expanded to generally include not only obstructions in the travel lanes but also vehicles and/or cargo on the shoulder or in the roadway right-of-way.
At the time of this investigation, Authority Removal laws have been enacted in approximately half of all U.S. States. The aforementioned revisions to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (2003) - that recommend removal of a minor traffic incident blocking a travel lane to the shoulder as quickly as possible - support the intent of both Driver and Authority Removal laws since the language does not specify who is responsible for removing the incident. In addition, the Incident Responders' Safety Model Law includes model Authority Removal law language that addresses authority for expedited removal, liability protection, and compensation for incident removal costs in an effort to encourage enactment of consistent and comprehensive Authority Removal laws in additional States.