Manchester police are joining in an effort to educate the public about the state's Move Over law, which requires motorists to take extra care when driving by parked emergency responders.
The issue resonates with police in Manchester since the department in 1975 lost Officer Robert Tobias when at 23 years old he was struck and killed by a driver who left Route 70 while conducting a traffic stop. He had been on the force for only one year.
"It's important that we have these types of laws in place to protect the guys," said Manchester Chief of Police Brian Klimakowski. "With all of the distracted driving, with cell phone usage and texting, it takes one second to swerve out of a lane and clip somebody on the shoulder."
Drivers in New Jersey must, according to the 2009 law, move over one lane away from stopped emergency response vehicles. If they cannot move over, they must slow down to below the posted speed limit. Failure to do so may result in the driver being ticketed.
A Manchester officer had a close call last June when his patrol car was struck by an alleged drunken driver while conducting a traffic stop in Whiting. The officer, who was not seriously injured in the crash, had just returned to his car when it was struck. Had he still been standing outside of the vehicle at the time of the crash, things could have ended differently, Klimakowski said.
That driver utimately was not charged with violating the move over law, but the incident nonetheless illustrates the dangers patrolmen and emergency responders face when out on the road, according to the chief.
"It's important and it could save the life of an officer or emergency worker or tow truck driver," Klimakowski said.
Route 70 presents a safety challenge since motorists in most cases will not be able to move over for emergency vehicles since the state highway is two lanes through Manchester.
"They can't move over, but they certainly can reduce their speed considerably to pass by safely," the chief said.
The law requires that those who cannot move over "reduce the speed of the motor vehicle to a reasonable and proper speed for the existing road and traffic conditions, which speed shall be less than the posted speed limit, and be prepared to stop."
Because the law does not outline a speed at which drivers should pass emergency vehicles when they cannot move over, Klimakowski said that drivers should slow to a speed that makes a quick stop possible.
"In my opinion, I would say something in the 25-30 mph range," Klimakowski said. "There's a little bit of discretion there."
The chief said that he plans to include a discussion of the law when he gives public safety talks to various groups around town and will alert residents to the law through a public service campaign.
"I'm going to direct our patrols to really step up enforcement on this," Klimakowski said.
Officials at a recent news conference said the public isn't adequately aware of the law.
At 450 diners throughout New Jersey, 500,000 place mats describing the state's Move Over law are to be distributed through a partnership between numerous law enforcement and public safety agencies.
Since 2007, there have been nearly 30,000 crashes in roadside work zones in New Jersey, resulting in nearly 10,000 injuries and 70 deaths, according to Middlesex County officials.
One of the most known cases involving this law was the death of 29-year-old State Trooper Marc Castellano, who was struck by a car and killed in June 2010 while investigating an abandoned vehicle on a Howell highway.
Klimakowski said that, besides the June crash in Whiting, Manchester has not had any notable incidents in which an emergency responder's safety has been jeopardized by a passing motorist.
Throughout New Jersey, 3,200 citations have been written to drivers for failure to move over when in range of a stopped emergency response vehicle on the side of the road, according to the county.
"I'm not going to stop until I feel (the public) knows enough about this law," said Castellano's mother, Donna Setaro, at a recent press conference promoting the place mat initiative.
Setaro said that after her son's death, she found that not many people knew about the Move Over law. It has become her mission to educate the state about the law, she said, and has performed more than 151 speaking engagements around the state.
This summer, with the coordination of local police, fire and emergency responders, a promotional video was taped on Route 37 East in Toms River to help spread the message. More information on the law is available through the state's Office of the Attorney General.