SEBRING — Two Florida Highway Patrol troopers, in the space of a month, got hit by out-of-control motorists while responding to roadside emergencies.
One, still inside his vehicle, ran behind his car to help the motorist escape his own burning vehicle. Another pushed a man out of the way only to get hit by the car himself. At last report, he is still recovering from his injuries.
In both cases, someone traveling past the roadside emergency, where response vehicles had activated flashing lights as a warning, failed to slow down and caused a wreck.
In a press conference Wednesday in Fort Myers, FHP released statistics. In 2018, Florida saw 231 crashes with emergency vehicles of all kinds, and 17,000 citations for people not obeying the move over law.
FHP officials also released the rear-window camera video from the first incident, showing the vehicle getting hit, full speed, on Nov. 5, 2018.
Hit and helping
Trooper Richard Verbiest, in a FHP Chevrolet SUV, had stopped behind a disabled motorist on the inside paved shoulder at mile marker 134 of southbound I-75 in Lee County to help.
That didn’t happen Nov. 5, 2018. Verbiest had just pulled over and traffic was still moving swiftly past him.
As cars began to slow down and bunch up, a 2012 Mazda, driven by Fernando Xavier Espinoza, 35 of Fort Myers, swerved onto the inside paved shoulder to avoid slowing traffic.
He bounced off the guardrail and slammed into the rear of the FHP vehicle.
His car landed splayed diagonally into the inside lane, and his engine caught on fire.
Espinoza was seriously hurt. While Verbiest suffered a minor injury, he could get out of his damaged car, rush back, pull Espinoza from the burning car and drag him to a safe distance.
Move over law
The film shows how easily someone can run afoul of the 2002 Florida law — Florida statute 316.126(1) — that requires drivers to slow down and/or move over when they see flashing emergency lights or a stopped vehicle along the road.
Under the law, drivers must:
• Move over when a patrol car, emergency vehicle, sanitation vehicle, utility service vehicle and/or tow truck is stopped on the side of a road with lights flashing.
• Slow down to 20 mph below the posted speed limit, if they can’t move over, and slow to 5 mph if the posted speed limit is 20 mph or less.
• Always drive up on an emergency vehicle with caution.
In 2014, sanitation and utility vehicles were added to the list of vehicles for which motorists should move over.
FHP officials said they released the November video to remind drivers to stay focused and follow the move over law.
A similar incident on Dec. 3, 2018 left FHP Trooper Mithil Patel seriously injured at the scene of a previous traffic crash on northbound Interstate 95.
While talking with 65-year-old Rony Bottex, who had been involved in a wreck near Hobe Sound, Patel saw a black car spinning out-of-control toward them.
Video recorded by a WPEC Channel 12 News traffic camera shows Patel shoving Bottex out of the way and then getting hit and thrown by the car himself.
The video also shows a white van, near the edge of the screen, rapidly approaching the back of the black car just before it spun out of control.
The video went viral on social media at the time.
A much older video of another officer being hit by a car continues to get views on social media: On Jan. 31, 2006, Highlands County Sheriff’s Deputy Roger St. Laurent got hit by the passenger-side mirror of a car that ran right by him at a nighttime traffic stop.
A close call
St. Laurent still works for the Sheriff’s Office as a detective in criminal investigations.
As reported in the News-Sun at the time, he returned to work on Feb. 3, 2006, with bruises that indicated the car only passed inches from his body.
The mirror caught him by his left rear pants pocket and left elbow, spinning him and leaving paint transfer on his pants.
“I didn’t know what had happened, but I knew it was something bad,” St. Laurent said at the time.
Officers are trained to use extreme caution, but he said it wasn’t warranted when he pulled over Cheryl Pelkey, 60, of Cheektowaga, N.Y., to issue a speeding ticket.
At 12:30 a.m. Jan. 31, 2006, the southbound shoulder of U.S. 27 at Lake Byrd Road, Avon Park, had sparse traffic in a 55 mph zone.
With no apparent danger from the driver, St. Laurent said he stood on her side of the car instead of the passenger side.
Just then, Frances McCrary, 83, of Fillmore, N.Y., was driving from Sunray to pick up her terminally ill husband at Florida Hospital Heartland Medical Center.
St. Laurent said he heard every truck as it approached, but only heard her 1997 Buick Park Avenue as it drew in air just before hitting him.
“It knocked me senseless,” St. Laurent said.
He saw receding tail lights. His hip hurt and his belt-mounted radio had been knocked into Pelkey’s lap.
The mirror had scraped his arm to his hand and knocked his ticket book 20 feet away, making it unusable.
The radio still worked, so St. Laurent called for help while Pelkey helped him assess his condition.
Grateful, he didn’t issue her a ticket.
St. Laurent couldn’t recall details about the car, but his patrol car’s dashboard camera caught it on tape.
By 2:30 p.m. that day, deputies found McCrary. She was not detained.
Florida Highway Patrol Cpl. Dennis K. Roberts investigated the matter: Allegedly, she knew she hit something, but did not stop or report it at the hospital.
“I’m not going to throw this woman in jail,” Roberts said at the time. “She doesn’t belong in jail, based on her medical condition and age, but (I) will charge her.”
St. Laurent said the fact that he was OK pleased his wife. As a former U.S. Army Military Policeman and an Operation Desert Storm veteran, he said he tried not to think about close calls.
Florida’s “move over law” is meant to reduce them.
Camera-shy, he followed up his experience with television interviews to warn motorists about the law, and the dangers at traffic stops, especially at night.
Sometimes, he said, motorists get drawn toward emergency lights at night, instead of away from them.
It’s times like that, they need to be especially cautious.