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OHIO Little-known law aims to save troopers' lives from motorists



Published: Mon, November 5, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Drivers must move over or slow down when passing a stopped safety vehicle.

By MICHELE C. HLADIK

VINDICATOR CORRESPONDENT

COLUMBUS -- Working the scene of an accident or stopping traffic violators can be very dangerous for law enforcement and safety officials, and much of that danger comes from inattentive passing drivers.

More Ohio State Highway Patrol Troopers are killed on duty in traffic-related events than by any other means. But, law enforcers are finally able to fight back with a little-known, 2-year-old law requiring drivers to change lanes or slow down when passing an emergency vehicle on the side of the road.

Lt. Gary Lewis, a spokesman for the patrol, said 29 of the 34 troopers killed in the line of duty died in traffic-related accidents since the patrol's birth 67 years ago. Those figures include 10 struck by passing vehicles and does not include one auxiliary officer who was struck and killed and two load limit inspectors working in the Wooster area who were also killed by a passing vehicle.

The most recent accident occurred on the Ohio Turnpike last year when Milan-based trooper Robert Perez was killed when someone struck his car while he was working a traffic stop.

Survivor: Former state trooper Jeff Collins knows all too well the effects of an inattentive driver.

Collins' career came to a crashing halt when in 1998. While stationed at the Delaware Post he was struck by a driver who reportedly did not see him conducting an accident investigation.

He said he can't remember the details of the accident, but witnesses report he was struck from behind and landed on his head. He suffered a brain injury that left him in a coma for a month and had to relearn everyday tasks such as talking and walking.

"It was quite a traumatic experience for my family and my patrol family," he said, adding they are still trying to move on from the experience.

"My family is strong." He said he received a lot of support from his wife and her mother, who watched their three children, including their 7-month-old son, while his wife took care of him. The accident also forced Collins into disability retirement from a career he enjoyed.

"That was my passion," he said. "I had every intention of being a colonel some day. I loved my job." Collins currently works as a civilian for the patrol's training academy firing range.

"I wanted to be in this environment," he said. "This is my home." He is also attending college to earn a degree in business. Despite the outcome of that night, Collins said he doesn't think he would do anything differently. "I can Monday-night-quarterback this thing to death," he said. "But I was simply doing my job."

Law passed: Two years ago, state lawmakers took a step toward curbing the number of these incidents by making it a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $100, for motorists who do not change lanes when possible or slow down when driving past an emergency vehicle with its lights flashing.

"Its always been seen as common sense or courtesy, but now its the law," Lewis said.

Despite signs scattered throughout the state explaining the law, some believe many Ohioans still do not know about it.

"It seems like common sense," Collins said adding that many people are more interested in seeing the accident. "They want to get as close as they can.

"We understand the danger [in the job], but that doesn't make people not liable."

He said he also isn't sure why the law isn't more effective.

According to Lewis, the patrol wrote 6,000 citations for those who violated this law last year. But he admits there might be problems with enforcement. He said the key to the law's success is in educating the public.




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