KOPEL: IT'S THE LAW, BUT THE LAW IS UNCLEAR
Uh-oh! Flashing red lights in the rear-view
Spouse Dolores was driving our car west to Vail the afternoon of July 15. We were to attend a concert of George Gershwin music. Our car was in the right lane, getting close to the second exit to Vail, where we normally make our exit. We passed a semi-truck with two Vail police cars parked behind it off the road on the right shoulder. The red and blue lights on the roofs of the police cars were flashing.
Dolores slowed down. One of the two police cars pulled out behind us, and we immediately pulled over onto the shoulder and stopped. The police officer spent 30 minutes checking her credentials, then gave her a summons for a violation of CRS 42-4-705 (2) — passing a stationary emergency vehicle without moving over to the left lane.
The officer had ignored the dozen or so “state law” signs on the road to Vail. Those signs have been deceptive since 2005. That year, the statute was amended by House Bill 1187, carried by Rep. Mark Larson, R-Cortez, and Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Denver, with a large number of co-sponsors.
The amended language in 705 (2) (b) and (c) reads:
“(b) On a highway with at least two adjacent lanes proceeding in the same direction on the same side of the highway where a stationary authorized emergency vehicle is located, the driver of an approaching or passing vehicle shall proceed with due care and caution and yield the right-of-way by moving into a lane at least one moving lane apart from the stationary authorized emergency vehicle.... If movement to an adjacent moving lane is not possible due to weather, road conditions or the immediate presence of vehicular or pedestrian traffic, the driver ... shall proceed as
(c) if movement by the driver ... into an adjacent moving lane ... is not possible. The driver ... shall reduce and maintain a safe speed with regard to the location of the stationary authorized vehicle, weather conditions, road conditions and vehicular or pedestrian traffic and proceed with due care and caution...”
The traffic signs, many of which carry the “State Law” reminder at the top, read:
Move over or slow down for stopped maintenance or emergency vehicles
The word “or” on the sign is treated as disjunctive. You can move over, OR you can slow down. In the statute, “or” is created as conjunctive and really means “and” as a substitute for “moving over” under certain conditions such as weather or traffic.
There are cases from the state Supreme Court where “or” is treated as “and.”
The present Colorado Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over traffic signs, is not responsible for the wording on the sign. That was done under the jurisdiction of the preceding executive branch. However, there is no reason why the signs cannot be amended to warn motorists without having to deceive them:
Move over if clear, if not: go slow for stopped maintenance or emergency vehicles
Another approach would be to create a statutory presumption that the driver who doesn’t move over decides based on his or her judgment. The physical ability to make a sharp lane move should be considered.
What’s more, we would have missed our turnoff at the second Vail approach.
It should be the burden of the police to show that failing to change lanes is dangerous rather than the burden of the driver to change lanes regardless of the circumstances.
It cost us more in time and inconvenience to travel to the Eagle County Courthouse for an 8:30 a.m. Aug. 21 appearance than we would have spent to take the lazy way out and just pay the fine. But Dolores’ good driving record remains so, as the summons was dismissed.
Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.