Fine doubles for not yielding to first responders

Washington drivers who don't move over and slow down as they pass state troopers, ambulances or tow trucks tending to emergencies on the roadside are subject to double the usual fine starting today.

New provisions of the state's "move over" law went into effect at midnight. They define a safety zone of 200 feet before and after an emergency vehicle with its lights flashing, and require drivers to either change lanes or slow down when in that zone.

Anyone who fails to move over or is caught speeding in the safety zone is subject to twice the ticket amount -- similar to the fines faced when committing traffic infractions in construction or school zones.

Drivers who endanger emergency workers in those zones can be charged with a gross misdemeanor, and that carries a mandatory 60-day license suspension and possible jail sentence.

Lt. Roger Wilbur of the Washington State Patrol in Kennewick said the stricter penalties for failing to move over or slow down should help troopers and other emergency workers be safer.

"Across the state, we still continue to see emergency personnel or workers alongside the freeway getting hit as the result of people just not paying attention or losing control as they go by," Wilbur said.

He added that moving over is a good idea for any vehicle stopped on the side of the road -- not just emergency workers.

"For anybody stopped on the shoulder of the road, there's a potential something could happen," he said. "Give that person the amount of space they need."

The Legislature passed the original move over law in 2007, but state patrol officials said the problem got worse rather than better.

A news release said between 2006 and 2009, there were 80 collisions involving passing vehicles hitting state patrol cars parked alongside the highway. The major contributing factors were speeding, driving too fast for conditions and driving under the influence.

"The state patrol is not the only organization struggling with this problem," said state patrol Chief John R. Batiste. "The towing industry recently experienced the tragedy of having one of its drivers killed while working on the side of the road. Complying with this new law couldn't be easier. Slow down and move over when approaching emergency workers on the side of the road."

Wilbur said drivers have been catching on and more of them are moving over since the original law went into effect, but there still are plenty of people who don't change lanes or slow down.

"We are still seeing a fair number of vehicles not obeying the law," he said.

Also effective today is a law that allows counties to increase the excise tax for enhanced 911 service for land lines and cell phones.

Enhanced 911 service allows a caller's phone number and location to be automatically displayed at an emergency dispatch center.

Benton and Franklin County commissioners approved an additional 20-cent tax, although commissioners said they reluctantly did so.

Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck said the state told the counties that some state money for emergency dispatch would be pulled unless the tax was approved.

"They were putting us in a position to either raise the enhanced 911 tax or be in the hole hundreds of thousands on 911 systems," Peck said. "All three of us were adamantly opposed to the way the state was doing this."

Benton County commissioners made similar comments at public meetings last fall.

With the 20-cent addition, residents of the two counties will pay 70 cents a month for enhanced 911 services on their phone bills. The tax has been 50 cents a month since 1992.

The money is intended to be used for 911 system upgrades, according to a summary of the bill passed in the last legislative session.

Two percent of the money goes to the state Department of Revenue.