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Unaware drivers ignoring Pennsylvania’s ‘steer clear’ law

Jacob Tierney
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Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Big rigs drive in the far left lane as Pennsylvania State Trooper Tagmyer walks back to his vehicle after pulling over a car to issue a citation along Interstate 79 South on Friday, April 8, 2016.
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Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Trooper George Hare Jr. poses for a portrait in his Mt. Pleasant home on Friday, April 8, 2016. Hare was clearing debris from Route 119 when he was struck by a car in October 2014. His recovery has been long and slow, and now he is been trying to raise awareness of Pennsylvania’s “Steer Clear” law.
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Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
A car moves to the far lane as Pennsylvania State Trooper Tagmyer pulls over a car to issue a citation along Interstate 79 South on Friday, April 8, 2016.
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Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania State Trooper Tagmyer pulls over a car to issue a citation along Interstate 79 South on Friday, April 8, 2016.
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Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Trooper George Hare Jr. poses for a portrait in his Mt. Pleasant home on Friday, April 8, 2016. Hare was clearing debris from Route 119 when he was struck by a car in October 2014. His recovery has been long and slow, and now he is been trying to raise awareness of Pennsylvania’s “Steer Clear” law.

State Trooper George Hare called for backup from his patrol car just before stepping onto Route 119 in East Huntingdon to pick up pieces of a shattered wooden pallet strewn across the road.

That’s the last thing he remembers.

The trooper can’t recall the SUV that hit him.

In fact, he doesn’t remember much at all about October 29, 2014, the night his life was changed forever.

Recovery for the trooper from Mt. Pleasant has been slow and painful: He’s able to walk without a cane and can drive short distances to go to therapy or take his daughter to soccer practice.

What he does these days is work to raise awareness of the state’s “steer clear” law that requires drivers to slow down and move into the far lane of traffic when passing a police or emergency vehicle parked along the road.

Although it’s been nearly 10 years since the law was passed in September 2006, many drivers are unaware of it or simply choose to ignore it.

Hare wants to change that.

“Doing a traffic stop nowadays is becoming more and more dangerous, with more traffic on the road,” Hare said. “Your life is in the hands of the motorists.”

Statistics show there is work to be done to make more people aware of the law.

PennDOT numbers indicate there were 76 crashes involving parked emergency vehicles in the state in 2014 and 82 last year.

An annual average of 90 crashes a year were recorded from 2000-06 before the law. That average fell just below 85 in the years since the law passed.

But “it’s hard to pinpoint an exact number of how many lives that law may have saved,” said state police spokesman Adam Reed.

“You only hear about the instances where somebody does hit a first responder. … You never hear about the instances where someone does make the effort to move over.”

State police and PennDOT conduct periodic campaigns to educate motorists about the law with news releases and posts on social media.

Troopers also occasionally focus their efforts to catch violators — going out in pairs, with one making routine traffic stops on a highway while the other watches from a distance to pull over those who don’t steer clear of the parked police car.

Some violators are let off with a warning; others are hit with a fine, Reed said. The maximum penalty for breaking the law is $250.

In Hare’s case, the driver was charged, but he died before going to trial.

With limited officers doing other jobs on patrol, enforcement of the 2006 lawremains more the exception than the rule, officials said.

Hare said he never ticketed anyone for not steering clear when he was on the road.

It’s difficult and unsafe to interrupt a traffic stop to chase down a driver who did not move over, so unless officers have a partner to do that, most offenders go unpunished, he said.

That truth is borne out by the numbers: Troopers cited only 25 people in Allegheny County and 31 in Westmoreland County for violating the law in 2015, state police data show.

A survey done a year after the law passed showed that 71 percent of the respondents said they did not know about it. The same survey, however, said 86 percent of those polled thought the law was a good idea.

“The results were pretty dramatic,” said Ken Underwood, chief executive officer of the National Safety Commission that conducted the poll.

The survey was not updated, so more recent data are not available. But Underwood, whose company in Florida administers driver safety courses, said there is empirical evidence that the laws have had an impact.

“Just driving down the road I see a huge difference from 10 years ago,” he said.

Underwood noted that “steer clear,” also known as “move over” laws, are relatively recent initiatives — with few states having them on the books in the 1990s. They started being passed in the 2000s, and now every state has a version of the law, according to “Move Over America,” a national awareness campaign launched by the safety commission.

Locally, Hare and others continue the task of spreading the word about the law.

Last year, Trooper James Monkelis hosted a 5K race to raise money for the Hare family and promote awareness of the law.

On April 23, Hare will attend the TakeOff memorial race at St. Vincent College to continue to promote the law. The race is held in honor of Kenton Iwaniec, a trooper from Cook Township who was killed by a drunken driver in 2008.

Hare said he wants to make the road safer for his fellow officers.

“Sometimes you just don’t feel safe out there, but unfortunately that’s part of our job,” he said.

Getting people to follow the law is the challenge that remains today for him and others.

“There definitely needs to be more awareness,” Hare said.

At a gas station at the busy New Stanton interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a Hempfield woman, asked whether she knew about the law, made it clear that more work needs to be done.

“I just stay in my lane,” said Barb Varner, who admitted said she had never heard of the law. “I’d probably do it, not just to avoid the fine, but because I’m supposed to for the cop’s safety.”

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or [email protected].

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