WEST GARDINER — Maine State Police Trooper Christopher Rogers looks in his driver’s side mirror, waiting for a chance to open his door and climb out as a steady stream of cars speed by just a couple of feet away. All those drivers, apparently unfazed by the flashing blue lights on the cruiser, are not just breaking the law. They also pose a very real threat to Rogers’ life.

“If I opened my door now, they’d take it off,” Rogers said, still peering into the mirror. “They’ve got plenty of room to see what’s going on. They’ve got plenty of room to move over. Instead they put two hands on the wheel and pray.”

State police are renewing pleas to drivers to slow down and give parked emergency vehicles plenty of room after two troopers were injured and two cruisers were destroyed in crashes over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Trooper William Baker was hurt Dec. 1 when his cruiser was broadsided by a car that slid out of control on the Maine Turnpike in York as he was investigating another crash. Trooper Samuel Tlumac was hurt later that same day when his cruiser was rear-ended while he was parked at a crash site on Interstate 95 in Pittsfield.

None of the injuries proved to be serious. Both accidents occurred on snow-covered roads, and both were at least in part caused by drivers who failed to obey a state law that requires motorists to slow down and move over when approaching an emergency vehicle from behind.

“We as troop commanders almost cringe when the phone rings during a snowstorm,” said state police Lt. Aaron Hayden, commander of Augusta-based Troop D. “We can almost guarantee the loss of a cruiser somewhere in the state. We just hope we don’t have an injured trooper to go with it.”

Hayden said drivers have become accustomed to obeying the law that requires them to pull over to the right when an emergency vehicle is approaching from behind, but many motorists fail to obey the law that requires them to slow down and move away from a parked emergency vehicle with its lights flashing. Failure to obey the law has led to a number of accidents, Hayden said.

“I don’t know anybody who hasn’t been struck,” he said.

Hayden said there have been 75 state police cruisers struck from behind in the past five years, including cruisers that were hit while moving in traffic. Hayden said it’s impossible to know what percentage of those cruisers were stopped with their emergency lights flashing, but he said the number was significant enough that the department began keeping statistics on such crashes three years ago. During that time, 24 cruisers were struck from behind while stopped with lights flashing, leaving12 troopers injured.

Rogers said the number of close calls are too numerous to count.

“I’ve had my Stetson hat blown off more than once,” he said. “It’s not a comfortable feeling.”

Hayden said there is a psychological impact that comes from working in a car that could, at any moment, be rammed from behind by a one-ton missile.

“One of my troopers here served in Afghanistan,” he said. “He’s more nervous doing work in his car than he was in war overseas.”

While such crashes are more likely to occur during snow and ice storms, they happen in all kinds of weather conditions, Hayden said. The state law, passed in 2007, requires drivers passing a parked emergency vehicle with lights flashing to move into a non-adjacent lane away regardless of weather conditions. On the interstate that most often means moving from the driving lane to the passing lane.

The law also applies to secondary roads. Hayden said drivers should, when there is clear visibility and obviously no traffic, move over into the oncoming lane while driving around a parked emergency vehicle.

When it is impossible to safely switch lanes – Hayden said that should be a rarity on limited access highways like Interstate 95 and the Maine Turnpike – the law requires drivers to slow to a “prudent” speed. While not specified in the law, Rogers and Hayden agreed that on the interstate or turnpike, prudent speed is around 45 mph.

The law requires drivers, in all situations, to use “due regard to the safety and traffic conditions.” That means slowing and giving vehicles as much room as is safely possible, Rogers said. Any sign that the driver sees the emergency vehicle is helpful, Rogers said. During one traffic stop last week, Rogers looked in his mirror as a tractor-trailer tried unsuccessfully to pull into the passing lane.

“At least he acknowledged I’m here and that he can see me,” Rogers said. “That’s comforting.

“We accept there are risks,” he said. “Anything the public can do to help minimize that risk is appreciated. Moving your car to the next lane can do that.”

Hayden said the law is difficult to enforce because the offenses usually occur as police are responding to an emergency or involved in a traffic stop, but drivers who fail to slow down and move face a $250 fine that increases to $311 with surcharges and other fees. The law applies to various types of emergency vehicles, including fire trucks, ambulances and wreckers.

During one traffic stop for speeding last week on Interstate 295, a total of 20 cars either failed to move into the passing lane or slow their speed while passing his cruiser, Rogers said. The number of violators fell to 15 on the next stop. In one instance, Rogers had to move out of the way as he walked back to his cruiser.

The vast majority of offenders are driving cars and pickup trucks. Professional drivers, those operating tractor-trailers and large trucks, “are generally pretty good about it,” he said.

One driver pulled over by Rogers after she blew by his cruiser while he was completing paperwork from a traffic stop, said she thought the law required her to slow down. She didn’t know she had to move to a non-adjacent lane.

“Most of the time the response we get is they didn’t know,” Rogers said. “I don’t think they’re generally doing it to scare us or put us in danger.”

Craig Crosby can be contacted at 621-5642 or at:

[email protected]

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