July 15, 2024

Distractions, impairments behind crashes during traffic stop

Illinois State Police Master Sergeant Brent Massingill

STERLING, Ill. — When Illinois State Police Master Sergeant Brent Massingill started his career in law enforcement 23 years ago, the training on officer safety during a traffic stop, then as now, focused on the plethora of unknowns that troopers face in a traffic stop.

“What they may or may not have in the car, how many people are in the car, if you have a potentially violent violator — the possibilities of what you could be walking into are limitless,” Massingill said.

While that training remains focused on those dangers, over time, one more danger has been moved up on the list of priorities — the risk of a trooper or a patrol vehicle being struck by a distracted or impaired driver.

“Over time, we’ve had to add in, not that we didn’t before, but we’ve really had to place more emphasis on the traffic going by you and safe positioning of your squad car on a traffic stop and where the traffic stop occurs,” Massingill said.

He is assigned to the patrol division of Troop 1, formerly District 1, which serves Carroll, Jo Daviess, Lee, Ogle, Stephenson, Whiteside and Winnebago counties in northern and northwestern Illinois.

The risks that law enforcement face from motorists who disregard Illinois’ Move Over law made headlines again recently when a driver struck an ISP squad car that was parked on the shoulder of Interstate 55.

The crash occurred on May 13 in Will County, when a squad car with emergency lights activated was parked on the shoulder of I-55 northbound, north of Illinois 59, handling a traffic crash. The squad car was struck by a Toyota Corolla.

The ISP trooper was inside his vehicle at the time of the crash and wearing a seatbelt. The trooper was transported to a local hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

The driver of the Corolla was cited for violation of the Move Over law — failure to yield to stationary emergency vehicle, failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident and improper lane usage.

The crash was the 15th Move Over law-related crash of 2024. So far this year, seven ISP troopers have been injured in Move Over-related crashes.

In 2023, the ISP had a total of 21 Move Over law-related crashes and seven troopers injured. In 2022, the ISP had 25 such crashes, with 13 troopers injured.

The Move Over law in Illinois requires motorists to move over when approaching an emergency vehicle or any vehicle with its emergency or hazard lights activated.

It is also known as Scott’s Law, in memory of Scott Gillen, a Chicago firefighter, who was killed in 2000 by a drunken driver while assisting at the scene of a vehicle crash on a Chicago expressway.

Massingill understands the dangers firsthand as a patrol officer and said there is no “safer” space on Illinois’ roadways.

“If you are doing traffic enforcement on the interstate, you have vehicles and truck traffic traveling at much higher speeds. If you are on a state or county route, as opposed to an interstate, the shoulders might not be as wide, so there is less space to work with. Each area has its own set of dangers,” he said.

Massingill said the first best piece of advice, when the blue and red lights come on behind a driver, is to pull over immediately.

“The officer or trooper know where they are at when they are stopping you, when they turn the lights on. We may be behind you for a little bit, waiting for the right spot, but we want you to pull over as immediately as possible,” he said.

“A lot of people will wait and think they are pulling over in a safer area, but if our lights come on, we’d like you to stop where we are trying to stop you. After making contact with you, we may move to a different location. But it’s a safe bet to stop right where you are at and we can go from there.”

While Move Over law-related crashes continue to happen, Massingill said they are far fewer than in the past.

“Scott’s Law has been in effect for over 20 years. The amount of people moving over now compared to back then, there’s no comparison. Nearly everybody is aware of the law,” he said.

“They may not know what the law is called, but they know they are supposed to move over. They know, for the most part, that they are supposed to slow down. We really see people following that law. But it only takes one to cause a problem.”

Further south, in Springfield, in the ISP’s Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division, Master Sergeant Todd Armstrong said a big part of the problem is distracted driving.

“There are so many distractions in vehicles today. Your No. 1 priority when you are driving is driving that vehicle. It’s not changing the radio or looking at your phone. It’s looking ahead and being safe while you drive,” he said.

Impairment, due to alcohol or drugs, also contributes to Move Over law-related incidents.

“We’ve had troopers and their squad cars hit and the person was under the influence of a controlled substance, alcohol, drugs, whatever that might be. It’s not just the distractions — it’s also the impairment,” Armstrong said.

Violations of the Move Over law can be costly for drivers. Fines for violations start at $250 and can go up to $10,000 for a first offense.

If the violation results in injury to another person, the violator’s license will be suspended for anywhere from six months to two years.

“If people would just pay attention to driving, we would be in much better shape,” Armstrong said.

Jeannine Otto

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor