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Lake County police stepping up enforcing emergency vehicle law
By Tony Gordon | Daily Herald Staff

Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Sgt. Curt Gregory questions a driver who violated the Scott's Law on Route 41 near Wadsworth. Scott's Law protects emergency vehicles from drivers who refuse to yield or slow down while passing.

 

Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Sgt. Curt Gregory, left, explains Scott's Law as Deputy Anthony Fanella pulls over a vehicle for violating the law on Route 41 near Wadsworth.

 

Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Police in Lake County are cracking down on Scott's Law violations. In the first six months of this year, police have written more than double the number of tickets issued in an average year.

 

Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

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Published: 8/2/2009 12:01 AM | Updated: 8/3/2009 11:58 AM

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Traffic tickets written for violations of Scott's Law in Lake County by year

2002: 25

2003: 45

2004: 49

2005: 28

2006: 22

2007: 40

2008: 68

Through June 30, 2009: 119

Source: Lake County circuit clerk's office.

Lake County police are becoming aggressive about defending their space.

Traffic tickets written for violations of "Scott's Law", which requires drivers to move over and slow down when passing emergency vehicles on the side of the road, are up dramatically this year.

Since the law became effective in 2002, records show county police agencies have written an average of 46.33 tickets per year for drivers who came too close to emergency vehicles on roadsides or went by too fast.

In the first six months of 2009, there have been a total of 119 such tickets written. Each carries a fine of $100 to $200.

"It has just gotten to the point where something has to be done," Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Curt Gregory said. "It seems like hardly anyone is aware of what the danger in this is, and we have got to get the word out."

Officials in Cook, DuPage and Kane counties said they are not experiencing an increase in citations written as dramatic as is seen in Lake County.

The law requires drivers on four-lane roads to reduce speed and move into the lane farthest away from any emergency vehicle on the side of the road with its lights flashing.

Vehicles covered under the law include those driven by police and fire personnel, as well as tow trucks and highway maintenance cars and trucks.

The law is named for Lt. Scott Gillen, a Chicago firefighter who was struck and killed while he was attending to a traffic accident on an expressway in 2000.

According to statistics from the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, 18 policemen were killed last year when they were struck by passing vehicles while outside their own cars, and 14 died the previous year.

The need for roadside safety resonates especially strong in Lake County, because Highland Park police officer Robert C. Reimann Jr., died Jan. 6, 1984 when a semitrailer truck slammed into him as he was questioning a burglary suspect at the side of the road.

"We are very aware of the consequences of inattentive motorists because of what happened to our officer," Highland Park Cmdr. Gerald Cameron said.

"We issued 41 written warnings and 39 citations last year for violations," Cameron said. "We would have been in a position to write more, but when our people are working at the side of the road, they cannot leave to chase down a Scott's Law violator."

Gregory said sheriff's police are overcoming that handicap by sending two or three squads out at a time to patrol a specific area.

The lead car will look for a driver in violation of a traffic law, such as speeding, missing license plate or some other violation, he said. Once the offending driver is stopped, a second car pulls in behind that squad car and waits for a vehicle that does not slow down or change lanes.

On a recent demonstration of the tactic, the chase cars waited an average of about one minute before a Scott's Law violation took place on a busy stretch of Route 41.

"Cars can get into packs on these roads, and there is no opportunity for someone to change lanes," Gregory said. "We understand that and are not looking to ticket those people, but those who refuse to move over are going to get written."

By instinct and training, the first thing a police officer outside a car parked at the side of the road is going to do after an indication of danger is to back up. That increases his vulnerability to passing cars.

In addition, Gregory demonstrated with his own squad car how police normally will not pull in directly behind a car they have stopped, but instead park a little to the outside of the car they are behind.

"Right now, my car is covering about four feet of an 81/2-foot traffic lane," Gregory said. "And there are still cars trying to get by me without changing lanes."

Eric Kalata, chief of the traffic division in the Lake County state's attorney's office, said those who receive a ticket for the first offense under Scott's Law are generally fined, sent to traffic school and given court supervision.

But he said the penalty can escalate up to a $10,000 fine and a three-year loss of a driver's license for a person who destroys property or injures someone while violating the statute.

"We hear a wide range of stories from people who come into court after being ticketed for this," Kalata said. "Some say they just did not know it was the law, but most say they were thinking about something else at the time or were in some other way distracted."

Although most people choose to appear in court without an attorney, the head of the Lake County Bar Association's criminal law committee believes that is something they should reconsider.

"A second violation of this law could lead to the discretionary suspension of a person's driver's license," Waukegan attorney Stephen McCollum said. "It is better to have someone representing you when the consequences are that serious."

Gregory said police also want people to consider the potentially serious consequences.

"We just want to get the word out that this is a disaster waiting to happen," he said. "All we are asking is to be able to do our job in an environment that is not unnecessarily dangerous."