Archive for Monday, July 10, 2000

Left Lane Law’ designed to protect law officers along roadside

Deaths, car wrecks prompt legislators to take action

July 10, 2000


— For Alex Petigna, stopping motorists alongside busy highways is part of a job that he knows can bring him within inches of death or serious injury.

In 12 years with the Kansas Highway Patrol, Petigna has had three cruisers rear-ended. More drivers than he can count have come too close for his comfort as he stood on the roadside ticketing a bad driver or helping a motorist.

"It kind of comes with the territory. You come to expect it and you deal with it," said Petigna, who is based in Olathe and patrols Wyandotte and Johnson counties.

On July 1, a law went into effect to help him and other law enforcement officers and emergency personnel doing their jobs on the side of the state's busy roadways.

Kansas is the third state after Indiana and Ohio to enact the "Left Lane Law," designed to create space between motorists and people and vehicles along the roadside.

Under the new law, motorists on four-lane highways must move to the left lane, if possible, when they approach any emergency or law enforcement vehicle on the right shoulder with its red, blue or amber lights flashing. If the vehicle is on the left shoulder, traffic then must move to the right lane.

On two-lane highways, drivers in both lanes must slow down and proceed with "due caution" as they approach the emergency vehicle. They can't pass another motorist within 100 feet of the vehicle.

For the first year the law is in effect, only warning tickets with no fines will be issued. After that, fines and court costs could exceed $100.

"We felt like it was fair to educate the public and get them in the mindset that we need to do this," said Lt. John Eickhorn, spokesman for the Highway Patrol, which urged legislators to enact the law earlier this year.

A little space is what Petigna could have used in January when he helped a woman change a tire on the shoulder of Interstate 35 in Johnson County.

A fast-moving car passed within inches of him and he barely had time to get out of the way.

"I pressed myself against the car flat and felt the wind go by," Petigna said. "I felt the wind blow my hair."

He recalled that as a rookie trooper, his training officer told him: "You are more likely to get run over than get shot."

Years later, Petigna remarked: "He knew what he was talking about."

One of Petigna's crunched cruisers was rear-ended in 1992 after he stopped a speeding pickup truck on U.S. 169 south of Olathe. The speeder, with his dog, stopped next to the highway curb, and Petigna had just gotten out to tell him to drive to a nearby parking lot.

With only a few seconds warning, Petigna got out of harm's way as a car slammed into his cruiser, which rammed the rear of the truck. The car's driver was charged with driving under the influence.

As for the man caught speeding, he got out of a ticket.

"I told him, 'You and your dog have been through enough.' At that point, I had been through enough, too," Petigna said.

Last year, 18 Highway Patrol cruisers were struck by vehicles while either stopped along a roadside or working a traffic accident with emergency lights flashing.

No trooper was seriously hurt or killed last year from being struck by a passing motorist. But that doesn't mean it can't happen.

Of the 10 troopers killed in the line of duty since the patrol's inception in 1937, two were struck along a roadside.

The last was Master Trooper Dean Goodheart, who was killed in 1995 while inspecting a semitrailer alongside Interstate 70 near Oakley. As he stood near the truck, a woman driving a car struck him.

His widow, Marilyn Goodheart of Salina, was among those urging lawmakers this year to enact the Left Lane Law.

"If this law was in effect prior to 1995, and this girl had been in a habit of moving to the left lane, my husband would be alive today," she said.

As Petigna sees it, the new law is more about educating the public about good safety habits than another chance to write somebody a ticket.

"If folks would just allow us the buffer zone we need -- if they would do that, I would be the happiest person on earth," he said.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.