By JACK ELLIOTT JR.
JACKSON — Mississippi’s existing “Move Over Law” now protects utility crews working alongside busy highways and local roads.
Since 2007, the law has safeguarded law enforcement, fire and highway construction workers. The expanded legislation, with protection for utility crews, takes effect July 1.
Other states, including Tennessee and North Carolina, have made changes to their laws in recent years.
Mississippi’s law the past five years has required motorists to move at least one lane away or slow down when they approach emergency vehicles that are parked on the roadside with lights flashing. If drivers don’t make room, they risk getting ticketed.
The new law will give electricity, water, gas and telecommunications workers laboring at roadside with emergency lights flashing on their trucks the same protection while working close to passing traffic.
It’s a question of public safety.
And that, says Ron Stewart, senior vice president of cooperative services for Electric Power Associations of Mississippi, is what got the 26 power associations involved.
“In past years, not so much recently, we have had our folks injured just because they were working on the side of road. It is a matter of safety for our employees who many times are working in adverse conditions, at night or just on the roadside,” Stewart said.
Stewart said the EPAs wanted motorists to be aware of the utility vehicles and slow down to get around them.
House Public Utilities Committee Chairman Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, said the issue is about public safety for motorists and the workers.
“We talking about workers who are out late at night with their equipment and they’re moving around their vehicles ... it was best for use to provide for both their protection and the public,” Beckett said.
The amendment to the “move over” law is the most recent effort by the Legislature, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and other advocates to make roads safer.
Lawmakers in the past few years have strengthened Mississippi DUI laws, required seat belt usage and cranked up the penalty for passing a stopped school bus. They also have reduced the speed limit in work zones to 60 miles an hour and doubled the fines for violators. A 2010 state law requires motorists to give cyclists a clearance of at least three feet.
MDOT kicks off this week a public awareness campaign for what it calls “Don’t Barrel Through Work Zones. Drive Smart to Arrive Alive.” The agency wants to help save lives and reduce work zone related injuries, said Southern District Transportation Commissioner Tom King.
MDOT also will be setting up displays at welcome centers across the state, except Itawamba County, in support of Go Orange for National Work Zone Awareness Week.
“It’s spring and heading to summer, we’ll have a lot of work going on ... a lot people will be out not just ours but also contractors out there with vehicles passing by all the time,” said King. “We just want the public to recognize our guys out there in those fluorescent vests and please slow down.”
King said the purpose of the laws is to keep a safe environment for the work crews and the public. That has not always worked out.
King said two years ago two MDOT workers were killed at a work site near Lumberton. Another worker was killed recently at a construction site in southwest Mississippi.
“I think we probably have the laws in place that we need. What we need is for people to please obey the law and respect the laws in construction areas,” said King, who was chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee before winning election to the MDOT commission in 2011.