North Carolina trooper Michael McLamb had stepped out of his patrol car on US 301 one sunny afternoon this August to talk to the speeding driver he had pulled over. The video camera in his cruiser, recording the scene, captured what happened next: a shape, a moving vehicle, suddenly lurched into the left side of the screen. Moments later, the 11-year highway patrol veteran was thrown to the ground, his survival measurable in millimeters.
Three months later, Mr. McLamb is still recovering from the accident. "Every time we make one of these stops, we're just a matter of inches from being seriously injured," he says. "It's always in the back of your mind."
Of 154 police officers killed nationwide in the line of duty in 2004, 73 died in traffic accidents, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Ten were struck during traffic stops.
Such incidents and thousands of close calls on America's roadways have prompted 37 states to enact "move-over laws" that penalize drivers if they don't make room or slow down when emergency vehicles with flashing lights are parked on the road, according to policedriving.com.
For drivers caught violating move-over laws, fines can be as high as $1,000 in some states. At least three - Florida, Georgia and North Carolina - have ratcheted up their penalties this year, making it a felony with the possibility of jail time, if a serious injury results from such an accident. In the past, some judges have thrown out cases when busted motorists said they simply didn't know such a law was on the books.
People failing to yield for stopped emergency vehicles "has now become a situation where laws have to come in and be more vigorously enforced, because drivers have lost control over what had been an informal normative order," says Michael Kearl, a sociologist at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
In several states, educational campaigns promoting the move-over laws focus on common-sense driving. One message in Florida's huge billboard campaign to promote traffic safety laws depicts a trooper at a traffic stop with the pleading words: "Give us room to work!" North Carolina sponsored a "move-over law" booth at the state fair last month and gave out key chains and bookmarks. And hundreds of people in Tennessee rode motorcycles in memory of a fallen trooper in October. The event raised money for billboards and bumper stickers reminding drivers to be careful as they near a road's shoulder.
Police, too, are stepping up enforcement. Two weeks ago, Missouri patrolmen, for instance, headed out in pairs. While one cruiser made a legitimate stop, the other one hung back to catch motorists who were flying by with abandon. In Texas, troopers often catch move-over scofflaws with daisy chain patrols of four cruisers working together.
Critics, though, say forcing motorists to slow down or change lanes in heavy traffic can create more havoc on the highways. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) vetoed a move-over law in October for this reason.
Anecdotal evidence shows that "there can be confusion when people are trying to force themselves to get out of a lane," says Eric Skrum, communications director at the American Motorists Association in Waunakee, Wis. "We don't know that [move-over laws] are the great safety benefit that people think they may be."
Many driving experts, including Mr. Kearl, say drivers' emotional and psychological distance from others on the road - along with a puzzling lack of common sense - contributes to the sobering statistics across the country.
In North Carolina's mountainous Haywood County, where fast-moving highways wend through steep valleys, two police officers were killed in three years. Sixty-four trooper cars have been struck on the side of North Carolina's highways in the past three years, and in Missouri two highway patrolmen this year died in roadside-stop accidents.
In McLamb's case, the driver of the PT Cruiser that struck him simply wasn't paying attention. She pleaded guilty under North Carolina's move-over law.
"Most people consider that they're good drivers, but the fact is that the vast majority are not good drivers. They are relaxed and complacent drivers," says Eddie Wren, vice president of Advanced Drivers of America, in Clarence, N.Y.
Yet at a time when drivers may need more help spotting trouble ahead, police are sometimes making themselves less conspicuous. In many areas, officers use smaller light racks to blend into traffic, and many don't wear reflective clothing during routine stops.
McLamb, though, says that North Carolina's PR campaign for its move-over law seems to be working. Even so, when he's well enough to leave his desk job and return to the road, he says, "I'll be watching my back a little more carefully."