What's up with that? Clarifying some fine points of safe driving behavior

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Here are two questions about safe driver behaviors.

Those highway “talking signs” began saying “See flashing lights? Move over OR slow down.” A week later they said “Move over AND slow down.” A week after that they said “Move over OR slow down.” As I remember, the newspaper article about all this (months ago) said move over a lane OR slow down. Make up my mind!

— Earl Kolanda, Lake Shore neighborhood

Two little letters. Big, big confusion.

OR is correct, according to Abbi Russell, spokeswoman for the Washington State Dept. of Transportation. “It should be ‘Move over OR slow down,’” she said, “meaning if you can’t move over because it’s unsafe, you need to slow down when passing an emergency vehicle using visual signals such as flashing lights.”

Russell points us to a graphic explanation available via the Washington State Patrol website, http://www.wsp.wa.gov/traveler/docs/laws/comparison_emergency_vehicles.pdf. The chart at that site compares the old and updated provisions of the law — as well as the monetary fines for violations, which sure did rise.

Here’s what the chart says. As of Jan. 1, 2011, the adjacent lanes of roadway 200 feet before and after a stationary emergency vehicle or assistance vehicle using visual signals are considered an “emergency zone.”

Here are your driving instructions as you approach an emergency zone:

• If it’s a road with at least two lanes in the direction of travel, you must clear the lane nearest the situation by moving a lane away; or, you must slow down and proceed with caution.

• If it’s a road with only one lane in the direction of travel — if you have no other lane to move to — you must slow down and proceed with caution. If it’s safe to do so, you may clear the emergency zone by “passing left” in the opposite, oncoming lane (always yielding to oncoming traffic, of course).

The fine for failing to move over or slow down has jumped from $124 to $190. Plus, the endangerment of an emergency worker is now a gross misdemeanor that comes with a mandatory 60-day license suspension, and possibly jail time, too.

Here’s what didn’t change: When an emergency vehicle is approaching with visual and audio signals (lights flashing, sirens blaring), you must immediately drive to the right edge of the road (clear of any intersection) and stop until the vehicle has passed. Failing to do so can result in the same old fine: $1,062.

I drive my pickup quite often, and when my girlfriend rides with me, she likes to sit next to me. She wears the seat belt that’s available but it only goes around her waist. Since a shoulder harness belt is not available in the middle of the seat, is this illegal?

— Dan, Parkside neighborhood

Or, to phrase it another way, is DWS — driving while snuggling — an arrestable offense? Must your girlfriend cool her jets and move over to the seat that’s got a shoulder strap?

Good news: the middle belt is perfectly legal, according to Washington State Patrol trooper Steve Schatzel. As long as your girlfriend is using it, she may sit close by you.

Lest you think we’re making light of the subject, Schatzel added the following:

“People need to wear seat belts. There’s a big emphasis on this now. We’ve got troopers out there specifically looking for people not wearing seat belts.”

It’s crucial to wear them properly, too. People sometimes run the shoulder harness across the chest and under the armpit, instead of over the shoulder, because it can irritate the neck. Schatzel has twice seen that shortcut result in collapsed lungs.

“Your body’s not meant to take that kind of stress in a collision,” he said. “It’s real important to wear the belt properly.”