As of October 1, 2013, Maryland began enforcing its recently passed “move over” law. The new law makes it a moving violation to drive past a stopped emergency vehicle without changing to a lane not adjacent to that emergency vehicle whenever “practicable.” Beginning in late October, 2013, and going into the beginning of 2014, it appears that Maryland State Troopers and Maryland Transportation Authority Police have been actively pursuing motorists who pass their stopped vehicles without giving wide enough berth. Many motorists who thought they were doing the right thing have received tickets. Keep in mind that a conviction for violating this new Maryland law comes with one point and a $110.00 fine. If the violation contributes to an accident, the penalty is three points and $150.00. In the event the accident causes a fatality, the fine goes up to $750.00.
UPDATE: As of October 1, 2014, Maryland’s move over law includes tow trucks. Drivers must now move out of the lane immediately adjacent to where a tow truck is working or they can be charged with violating Maryland’s move over law.
While many of the state’s major media outlets have covered this new law as it took effect, none, to my knowledge, have looked at the new law with a critical eye. This post will briefly consider how well-meaning defendants might respond to the accusation that they failed to move over. As always, no blog post can take the place of legal advice given by a licensed attorney who is familiar with the facts of your case. If you have received a citation for violating Maryland’s move over law, and you are concerned about the consequences that may come from being found guilty, then you may wish to speak with an attorney. Having a consultation with an attorney is practically essential if you already have points on your license or if you are at risk of having your insurance premiums increase. As discussed in my earlier post, out-of-state drivers may wish to consider hiring an attorney to appear in traffic court on their behalf, rather than returning to Maryland for court.
Move Over Law Basics
As a starting point, it’s important to know that Maryland’s move over law applies to police, fire, rescue, and other first responder vehicles one might expect to see with lights flashing at the side of the highway. The law applies to these vehicles when they are stopped. When passing a stopped emergency vehicle at the side of the road, the law requires a driver to “make a lane change into an available lane not immediately adjacent to the emergency vehicle.” If there is no other same-direction lane into which the driver can change, the law requires the driver to slow to a reasonable speed, suitable for current conditions. As you have likely heard, ignorance of the law is no excuse. Not knowing that Maryland has a move over law does not provide a basis for a successful defense.
Move Over Law Defenses
What defenses might exist? Assuming that tickets are written only when a driver failed to move over, I believe that defendable citations for failing to move over should mostly fall under one of the following two categories: 1. Driver did not see the emergency vehicle and therefore did not move over, or 2. Driver saw emergency the vehicle and did not move over because it was impracticable.
In the first category, the driver may have a defense provided he didn’t do anything to limit his own ability to see the emergency vehicle. If the driver was doing everything right, and the emergency vehicle was invisible to him because of some condition not of his own making, then there should be no liability for his failing to move over. I believe that these cases will involve blind hills, highway structures such as walls, and tight curves. In cases such as these, the driver will need to show the court that the amount of time he had to respond to the emergency vehicle’s presence did not afford him the chance to safely move over. Cases in which emergency vehicles are not clearly marked as such may also fall under this category. If the driver reasonably believed that the vehicle was not an emergency vehicle then he had no duty to move over.
In the second category, the driver may have a defense provided he can point to conditions that made it “impracticable” to move over at the time that he passed the emergency vehicle. In this kind of case the defense is that the act of moving over would have been unsafe for the driver and others on the road. The types of conditions that might support such a defense may include heavy traffic, limited visibility, handling limitations related to the driver’s vehicle (eg. it was towing a trailer), icy or slippery road conditions, and others. In order to make this kind of defense work, the driver will likely have to be able to tell the court that he did everything he possibly could in order to put a safe distance between his vehicle and the stopped emergency vehicle.
It should go without saying that the two broad defenses outlined above are mutually exclusive. By attempting to make both arguments simultaneously, a driver would have to change his testimony concerning whether or not he saw the stopped emergency vehicle. This kind of inconsistency would likely prove unworkable in court. Naturally, there may be other defenses to a mover over citation that are not discussed here. You can learn more about Maryland’s move over law by going to the Department of Transportation’s news release here.
Maryland Move Over Law Purpose
Ultimately, please keep in mind that move over laws are intended to keep police, firefighters, EMTs, tow truck drivers, and other first responders safe. Too many of these professionals have lost their lives or have been seriously injured by drivers who failed to give them enough room to do their jobs. If you see an emergency vehicle stopped at the side of the road then you should do everything you possibly can to give them at least one empty lane’s worth of space in which to do their work. If you can’t do that, you should slow down as much as possible and give them as much space as you possibly can.
Matthew Baum is a defense attorney with offices in Baltimore, Catonsville, and Columbia, Maryland. Reception for all three offices can be reached by calling (410) 929-3435.