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'Move Over' Laws Come As Surprise to Drivers

Several letters came after I published a letter from a driver who visited Ontario and reported back on the province's tough driving laws, including the law that requires motorists to move over or slow down when approaching an emergency vehicle stopped by the roadside.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
Readers should be aware similar rules apply closer to here.

A law now in effect in New Jersey requires that when approaching an emergency vehicle stopped with its red and/or blue lights flashing, or tow truck or highway maintenance vehicle displaying flashing amber lights, drivers must change lanes to a lane not adjacent to the stopped vehicle, or when that is not possible, slow to a "reasonable and proper speed .... less than the posted speed limit." Violations carry fines of $100 to $500.

Similar laws also are in effect in midwestern states, and presumably will eventually be continent-wide.
David Austein

We're already down to a handful of states that lack those laws. Maryland is one of them. Yet again this year, the General Assembly failed to pass such a bill. HB 622 failed to make it out of committee in the last session.

Virginia, meanwhile, made it a misdemeanor in 2002 to fail to move over a lane or at least slow down if changing lanes isn't safe. See a copy of that law here. One criticism I've heard of the Virginia version is that it doesn't specify how much a driver should slow down. Some other state laws say drivers should reduce their speed by 20 mph if they can't change lanes.

Only three states besides Maryland now lack a Move Over law, according to Move Over, America, which lobbies for the changes. More than 150 U.S. law enforcement officers have been killed since 1999 after being struck along U.S. America's highways, according to the organization.

I'll share another letter about this in my Sunday column.

By Robert Thomson  |  June 12, 2009; 2:32 PM ET
Categories:  Driving , Safety  | Tags: Move Over Law  
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Honestly, the only thing that is a surprise to me is that we have to legislate what should be basic common sense to any safe driver out there. You should move over whenever you see someone or something stopped on the side of the road, official vehicle or not.

Posted by: thetan | June 12, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, thetan, I think legislating common sense has become all too ingrained in this country, whether we needed it or not. Compare the experience of driving here--where we presume that no driver knows what to do unless we put up a sign with instructions--to driving in other countries where drivers are presumed to know the law and are trusted to obey it (e.g., the European preference for yield signs, or just yield LINES, where feasible versus the American insistence on all-way stops lest someone fail to yield).

I think the idea of "reasonable and prudent" in the context of this law makes sense, though, because an absolute standard is impractical given the great variation in roads (in terms of design, number of lanes, speed limit, width of shoulder if any, etc.)....surely a reasonable person passing, say, a broken-down vehicle with the hazard lights flashing would normally slow down a lot more on a two-lane road, where you pass over the center line, than on the Beltway, even if the speed limit on both roads is 55 mph. "Reasonableness" is a long-established principle of tort law that recognizes that it can be impractical to establish one rule that applies to all situations (if you try that, you wind up with the Code of Federal Regulations!).

Dr. Gridlock, could you perchance post a link to the column you reference with the letter from the person who visited Ontario? I can't say I recall seeing that column. (If it ran on a Thursday, there's a good chance I didn't see it; I subscribe to the Post for Friday thru Sunday and I read the weekdays online, but the Post makes it very difficult to find your Thursday columns on the site. The main Dr. Gridlock page at only links the Sunday columns.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | June 12, 2009 5:14 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: 1995hoo, usually it's difficult to find the Thursday columns online. In this particular case, it's impossible. That May 14 column doesn't exist on the site. Here's the letter I'm talking about.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
We just returned from one of our semiannual trips to Ontario, Canada. We would like to inform any of your readers planning to drive in Ontario about some new highway legislation: If one sees flashing lights from a stopped police cruiser on the shoulder or right lane, one must, if it is safe to do so, move into the far left lane. Otherwise, a fine could result.

Speeding is not tolerated. Highways are patrolled religiously and signs are posted along the way, designating amounts of fines for over-the-limit driving. Be aware that there's a huge fine for driving 50 kilometers (approximately 30 mph) over the posted limit.

There is a marked difference in Ontario driving habits from the aggressive driving of this area. There is less cutting one another off and jumping the queue, and people, on the whole, do stick to the posted limits.

You have been warned!
Diane M. Copley

Posted by: rtthomson1 | June 12, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for that. I must say my experience in Canada is rather different from Ms. Copley's in that I've never seen much speed enforcement anywhere, but on the whole the drivers there are quite polite and far more responsible than they are here, even when going 30 to 40 km/h over the speed limit. Ontario did have a serious problem with people going 150 to 160 km/h or faster on the 401, though, which was getting pretty dangerous due to all the truck traffic (speed limit is 100 for most of that road's length). There's a new provincial web site devoted to the crackdown on going 50 over the speed limit.

Incidentally, I forgot to follow up on my prior comments about Telegraph Road at Huntington Avenue. I went through there twice this week on southbound Telegraph and I thought the signs were much improved--portable VMS units on both side underscoring no left turn and a new no-left-turn sign right at the old intersection. I didn't see anybody turning left illegally, although I should also note that one of my trips through there was at around 9.00 this morning (Saturday) on the way back from the airport and there was almost nobody on the road yet!

So, nice job by either the Wilson Bridge project or the VDOT folks in improving the signage.

Posted by: 1995hoo | June 13, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Maybe Ontario drivers are sane...but their Montreal counterparts are rude as can be. I tend to drive a little slower in Canada than I would in the USA. Partially because I know my reaction time to any warning sign is diminished because I have to run through the conversion to MPH, partially because their road standards are slightly worse than ours, and partially because I can't imagine getting a ticket in a foreign country is very much fun.

But really, 10 to 15 km/hr over the "maximum" (speed limit) seems to be tolerated in most places.

I was just in New Brunswick...their speed limits are 110 km/hr.

Posted by: thetan | June 14, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Last summer when I was in Nova Scotia the speed limit on dual-carriageways was 110 and on other roads it maxed at 100. I tried to do a pretty good job of complying, although I'll freely admit to going a good 140 on the Cobequid Pass Toll Highway. I was neither the fastest nor the slowest driver through there. :-) The best way not to stand out on the highway in Canada as a US citizen is to turn on your headlights (assuming your car doesn't have DRLs). Because all cars sold in Canada must have DRLs by federal law, you stand out in an instant if your lights aren't on. (I do this on two-lane roads in the USA as well because I find it's easier to judge when it's safe to pass if people use their lights--their cars are more visible, especially on hot days when you get that mirage effect.)

I don't follow your point about converting the signs to MPH, though. Why bother? If the sign says "MAXIMUM 100" and you want to obey that, just match the needle to the 100 km/h marker on your speedometer's inner ring. I've wished for years that the United States would enter the 20th century and finish the conversion to SI, although I've largely given up hope for that unless the EU finally takes the step of banning all products sold in non-SI sizes (that is, you couldn't sell a 453 g box of cereal just to sell the same size 1-lb box you'd use in the USA; you'd be required to sell it as a 500 g box).

(BTW, Canadian speed limit signs say MAXIMUM because that word is the same in both official languages.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | June 14, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

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