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COMMENTARY: Watching out for highway and public safety personnel

COMMENTARY: Watching out for highway and public safety personnel

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PHOTO: construction zone

THE families of three firefighters were forever changed on the night of October 11, 2018 when a tractor-trailer crashed into the back of a Hanover County firetruck on Interstate 295 during the heavy rains of Tropical Storm Michael.

Lt. Brad Clark’s family is reminded daily of his tragic death. Our prayers and thoughts go out to them as they spend their first New Year’s without him.

We wish the two firefighters who survived the crash strength and well-being as they continue their journeys of recovery.

Record December snowfall on Dec. 9, 2018 led to at least four Virginia State Police troopers being struck by skidding vehicles in a 12-hour period on slick interstates in Central and Southwest Virginia.

Thankfully, the troopers’ injuries were only minor and the other drivers remained safe.

For the men and women whose “office” is the highway, these incidents are not limited to major weather events.

Close calls, injury and death are a daily risk for every state and local law enforcement officer, firefighter, EMS worker, highway maintenance employee, and tow truck operator working across the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Even the arrow boards, crash cushions and barrels in a highway work zone are not enough to guarantee their safety.

In February of this year, a Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) contract employee was struck and killed by a distracted driver in an active work zone on Interstate 95 in Prince George County . That’s another family we remember during the holiday season.

At the beginning of this month, Governor Ralph Northam issued a directive to establish the Executive Leadership Team on Highway Safety. The mission of this collaboration among the Virginia Departments of Education, Health, Motor Vehicles, State Police and Transportation and traffic safety advocates is to reduce the rising number of fatalities on Virginia’s roadways.

The directive’s goal is to save more lives through the advancement of education, engineering and enforcement relative to traffic safety.

Those most committed to achieving such objectives are the very ones most at risk of harm for the purpose of saving others.

Like all 50 states, Virginia has what is called a “move over” law. It’s a state law designed to protect those working alongside the highways by requiring motorists to move a lane away from vehicles stopped on the side of a road with flashing red, blue or amber lights.

If unable to move over, the Code of Virginia requires a driver to pass such vehicles “cautiously.”

Simple as this concept may be, those few extra feet can mean the difference between life and death. Yet across the nation, traffic incidents continue to be the leading cause of death for law enforcement and highway maintenance workers, and they are the second leading cause of death for firefighters in the nation.

There are a number of special days and weeks designated to recognize these professionals and their work. April has National Work Zone Awareness Week. June is designated in Virginia as “Move Over Month.”

There are efforts underway to designate a National Tow Truck Operator Week in September. In October, Virginia has special days designated to recognize firefighters for their service and sacrifice.

Our firefighters, state troopers, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, highway maintenance workers and tow truck operators spend every day on our highways, working to serve and protect the motoring public. They are dependent on every driver observing the “move over” law every day—not just some of the time.

The first priority of a police officer or other public servant is to go home to his or her family at the end of the shift.

This applies to all those working alongside a Virginia highway in a vehicle with red, blue, or amber lights.

It is time for Virginians to take a serious step forward to help save the lives of those who have chosen to look out for and save ours.

Shannon Valentine is Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation. Brian Moran is the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security.

Shannon Valentine is Virginia's Secretary of Transportation. Brian Moran is the  Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security.

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