Op-Ed Watch Out for Move Over by Michael McDowell

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Heard of the “Move Over” law?” If not, it’s time you did, especially if you are from Maryland, and especially if you are traveling on Maryland licence plates, below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Ignorance of the law, is no defense, of course. But knowing the law is useful, and may save you a lot of money — often more than $1,000-plus, and having to pay such a fine, no-questions-allowed, unless you hire a local lawyer where the cops stopped you, and/or, you travel back to a court very far away from your home in Maryland.

Move Over laws mandate that when you see a police cruiser with or without flashing lights, or an ambulance, or even a tow truck, pulled to the right hand side of the highway (two lane, multi lane, it doesn’t matter), you have to “move over” to the left hand lane, albeit with the important caveat “when it is safe to do so,” which of course is hard to prove, after the fact.

Back in October, an hour away from Charleston, South Carolina, on my way to a college board meeting, I learned the hard way about the Move Over Law. These laws actually began in South Carolina, and now apply in many or most states, including Maryland. But South Carolina has particularly exorbitant financial penalties, compared to most other states in the Union.

My wife and I have been happily living in Maryland for only 20 months, after 29 years in Washington, DC, which does NOT have a Move Over law. Indeed, we had never heard of it.

The law is intended to protect the safety of police and emergency vehicle operators, a few of whom, over several decades, have been injured, or, even more rarely, killed by vehicles coming up the lane beside the verge of a road and accidentally hitting them. So, I am sympathetic, and completely understand the case for such safety regulations.

My case though, was not a clear-cut one. I was driving around 11.30 am on a not-so-busy four lane highway, with a minor-to-wide right hand verge ending in a tree line. I had just rounded a bend, and suddenly saw two police cruisers parked behind an SUV, well into the verge, and safely off the right hand lane, or as I thought.

I had my car on cruise control at the speed limit, but I immediately braked, reducing my speed by about 15-20 miles per hour. I can’t recall if there was traffic in the left hand lane, but I proceeded cautiously past the parked vehicles well off to my right.

Within a minute or two, I saw the flashing lights of a Charleston County police cruiser right behind me. Surprised, I slowed down and pulled onto the verge, mystified as to what on earth I was being pulled over for.

The woman police officer came up to the passenger side of my car and asked me had I seen the flashing lights and claimed — quite wrongly — that I had almost “rear-ended” her. This was patently untrue. She then asked had I not heard of the Move Over Law? I said I didn’t know what she was referring to. I also told her that I knew I had been driving well below the speed limit, which she accepted. But that wasn’t good enough for her.

To cut to the chase, I asked the officer to please give me a warning, since I had never heard of this Move Over regulation, and added that this was my last of 20 trips to South Carolina over almost five years, always at my own expense, to help faculty and undergraduates at the SC college whose board I served on.

I repeatedly asked her to use her….discretion. But she was clearly a person of black-and-white/no-discretion opinions. She insisted on giving me a ticket and when I asked her twice what the fine would be, after at first not answering me, she said it would be at least $1,000! I was absolutely stunned and angry.

I would also point out that my wife and I checked on our return journey to SC in late January, and could not find a single Move Over sign on the highways on which we travelled. We looked out for this. So much for the authorities spreading-the-word.

The only option in fighting this was to return in person to South Carolina (10 hours drive from Chestertown, where we live) and appear in court. Otherwise, I would have pay at least $1,000 and plead guilty. I then had to decide whether to hire a lawyer, spend perhaps $1,000 or more on that, with no guarantee of winning the case, or of having the fine reduced.

With my wife’s support, I did return last month to a small courtroom in a SC village, and pleaded not guilty, representing myself. That very self-assured woman police officer personally turned up to testify in my case and another half dozen cases that afternoon for which she had handed out pricey tickets to every person summoned in the small court. I made my arguments in detail and the woman judge was impressive, intelligent, fair, and professional, and she reduced my fine from almost $1,100 to $647, but she still found me guilty nevertheless. I reluctantly paid the fine and we returned home that day.

One other point — and yes, it’s speculation. I spoke to an old friend in Charleston, who is originally from New Jersey. He told me that until he had changed his licence plates to SC ones, for a few months he had been stopped and fined relatively small amounts for traffic infractions, most of which he felt he was not guilty of. Since then, with his SC plates, he has not had a single fine over 10 years.

Small jurisdictions, especially in the Deep South, have a bad reputation for imposing higher-than-the-norm traffic and other fines to make up for the minor state taxes (or no state income taxes) in their jurisdictions, to boost their budgets. Alas, this is all too often done on the backs of those least able to pay.

That day in the tiny SC court, the other half dozen defendants were mainly African American, one was an immigrant, another a white lady, who was clearly poor and from North Carolina, and who said she was ill and visiting her sick daughter in Charleston, etc., when she was stopped, like me, for breaking the Move Over law. Many of these citizens told the judge they would have real difficulty paying these hefty fines within the times specified. To her credit, the woman judge was sympathetic, and tried to allow them much longer to pay the fines, but pay the fines they would have to, or face even higher fines or, shockingly, jail time. Such is the plight of the poor in many states of this country. In terms of manners, the confident woman police officer called defendants out by their surnames only, and chewed gum throughout the whole court proceedings.

So, be careful in “Dixie”, or even Maryland, re. the Move Over law. I suspect, or hope, that our Maryland police officers exercise more discretion than that self-assured woman police officer in SC just couldn’t stretch to. Or that fines in Maryland are not so outrageous as the over-the-top one I faced.

So, next time you see a police, EMS, or tow vehicle on the right hand side of the road, or even on the verge, move over. It’s the law! Especially outside Maryland, and especially below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Michael McDowell is a former journalist with the BBC and CBC, a World Bank staff member and manager, and has worked for the Carnegie Endowment, Harvard University, Aspen Institute, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He now lives in Chestertown, MD. 

 

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Letters to Editor

  1. Lois Shepard says:

    I had never heard of it either. About a year ago, we were driving back from Williamsburg, coming what we call the Back Way, over the lower Chesapeake Bay Bridge and up through the lower shore. Just below Cambridge, I was stopped for exactly the same “offense “.
    I had noticed the truck and police car pulled over on the right and gave them ,what I thought, was a wide berth. Clearly that was not good enough.
    A young, and very polite police officer pulled us over, and I said, I was driving the speed limit. He agreed, but then told me about the Move Over Law! I told him it made sense to me, but I had never heard of it. Besides, I was tired, and almost home. When he learned that we were from Easton, ( a “Local”), he smiled and said “well now you are warned. Get home safely.” And we did.

    • Michael McDowell says:

      That Maryland policeman showed intelligent and courteous discretion. Which is what the SC policewoman did not.

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