A Fairburn police officer is lucky to be alive after a driver plowed into their patrol car on I-85/southbound last Wednesday night. The passing motorist hit the patrol vehicle, which had just arrived at a separate wreck, just as the officer was exiting. Fairburn PD says the officer is in stable condition and, thankfully, expected to make a full recovery.
This is a sad tune repeated far too often and one that accentuates the hazards emergency workers face, and explains one of the many reasons these agencies struggle to remain fully staffed.
The scene played out dramatically and predictably on Wednesday night, August 9. I had to cover a shift and stay later into the evening in the WSB 24-Hour Traffic Center, as heavy rain moved in from the west.
The weather’s arrival was initially inauspicious, coating some roads with only a light mist. But any Atlanta driver knows the recipe for wrecks in this city is simple: just add water.
While there was not a sudden rash of crashes in the 8 and 9 p.m. hours, one small blip turned into a large, dangerous, and nearly catastrophic mess on I-85/southbound in Fairburn.
At around 9:10 p.m. and in our hourly call, Fulton 911 told me a vehicle had struck the left wall on I-85/southbound about a mile north of Highway 74/Senoia Road (Exit 61).
I looked at multiple WSB Jam Cams for a few minutes and then finally found a set of blue lights behind a car on the narrow left shoulder in the dark. The lack of light and presence of raindrops, along with a healthy zoom of the camera all worked in concert to blur any detail.
Then a chorus of extra responders arrived - more than would tend to a normal injury wreck. The dispatcher had told me this was just a minor crash, but now a conflagration of lights filled the camera. I called back: all they would say is that a secondary crash happened next to the first. The amount of police on scene led me to believe this was something more. Upon asking if a motorist had struck the original wreck, the dispatcher said they were fairly certain the new, bigger wreck was separate.
This, unfortunately, turned out to be only the latest instance of an errant, reckless driver ignoring the safety of others and the language of Georgia’s “Move Over Law.”
Simply put, the law states that when emergency lights are working a scene, drivers should slow to below the speed limit or move over one lane. These measures greatly reduce the chances of a responder or stranded driver getting hit.
The law, which took effect in 2016, also applies to utility and construction workers.
But as driving IQ continues to slip, more cars seem to be slamming into or grazing emergency workers and vehicles.
A recent instance in Conyers saw a driver narrowly miss an officer conducting a traffic stop.
The WSB Traffic Team and I often take in reports of HERO trucks receiving damage. Two HERO operators have died in the line of duty - Spencer Pass and Moses King - after darting missiles commonly called “cars” careened into them. Others have been struck and injured to varying degrees.
Officers have gotten hit while directing traffic; consider the tragic irony there.
Work crews see their equipment - and themselves - often or nearly hit quite often.
And there was the viral video from this May of a woman near Valdosta zooming up the ramp of a stopped wrecker and launching and flipping. That wrecker and the responders on the other side of the highway were already on the scene of another crash. An officer’s body cam video of the exchange is wild.
Reports on law enforcement agencies struggling to staff up are outnumbered by the police vacancies themselves. Departments are scrambling to find more funding to boost pay and to recruit officers from other places.
GDOT has had to scale back its HERO operations in the off hours, because their staffing shortages are so dire. The shallow staffing numbers had caused response times to soar.
People write to me constantly, asking why there are not enough police officers working to stop reckless drivers or Georgia State Patrol units to keep tractor trailers from driving in the far left lanes. There are many reasons, but the risk of being hit by an inattentive and selfish passerby is one.
Drivers complain about the time to clear crashes. And not only has the response time increased because of staffing shortages, but also HERO operators are now required to cone-off bigger spaces to create a safer bubble in which they and others can work.
And yet, there are still people who drive through the cones to save two seconds on their trips.
With lives at risk and the overall flow of traffic on the line, the best path forward requires some pause. Protect responders and passing motorists by looking, slowing down, and moving over. If the roads were safer, the line of people willing to be paid to maintain them and enforce traffic would grow.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. Download the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App to hear reports from the WSB Traffic Team automatically when you drive near trouble spots. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.
©2023 Cox Media Group