published Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

Reducing roadside danger

The roadside is a dangerous place to work. Injuries to those who toil there are common. Fatalities, fortunately, are rarer, but occur with more frequency than most people realize. Tennessee has taken steps in the past to protect some of its roadside workers. This month it extended that protection to another group of men and women who work in close proximity to traffic.

Utility company employees are now covered by an extension to Tennessee’s Move Over legislation. The law previously applied to police, fire and construction vehicles. Electric, gas, water and other utility company vehicles were added to the list July 1. The new rules should help reduce roadside carnage.

Under the updated law, drivers approaching a police, fire, construction or utility vehicle with flashing lights are required to move over to an adjacent lane, if they can do so safely. If changing lanes is not possible, drivers are required to reduce speed. Creating a buffer lane or reducing speed when nearing roadside workers should make what is a dangerous and sometimes deadly environment for workers a bit safer.

There’s an obvious need for such a law here and elsewhere. About 100 workers are killed and more than 20,000 are injured in roadside accidents across the nation in an average year. Move Over laws in Tennessee and elsewhere can’t guarantee workers’ safety, but they do provide a strong incentive for motorists to be more aware of their surroundings. The Tennessee law provides penalties — fines up to $500 and up to 30 days in jail — for drivers who fail to obey it.

Law enforcement officials, highway workers, emergency responders and utility company workers have little choice about where they ply their trade. They often have to be on the side of the road regardless of conditions — witness emergency personnel and utility workers who spent countless hours restoring services and providing assistance in the wake of April’s tornadoes and the rounds of spring and summer storms that have followed.

Those who must work just inches or a few feet from moving traffic are trained to do their jobs while minimizing risk to themselves. The training, though, means nothing if drivers do not do their part.

Though North Carolina covers utility workers in emergency situations under its Move Over law, Tennessee is the first state to cover them anytime their vehicle displays flashing lights. It’s not often that Tennessee is a trendsetter when it comes to legislation, but extending Move Over protection to utility workers who often are in harm’s way is a measure worthy of emulation.

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