'Give them distance' campaign seeks to protect stopped cars with hazard lights

  • Illinois tollway equipment operator John Wagner recalls a close call with a driver who hit his truck in 2011. Officials warn motorists to slow and move over for vehicles with flashing lights stopped on the shoulder lane.

      Illinois tollway equipment operator John Wagner recalls a close call with a driver who hit his truck in 2011. Officials warn motorists to slow and move over for vehicles with flashing lights stopped on the shoulder lane. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 12/6/2017 7:03 PM

Illinois tollway equipment operator John Wagner watched aghast as a speeding car smacked into his truck parked on the shoulder of I-90 just two feet from where he and a co-worker stood in summer 2011.

"We were very lucky. ... We could still have been in the vehicle," Wagner recalled at a news conference Wednesday at the O'Hare Oasis reminding drivers to put a distance between themselves and stopped vehicles with flashing lights. The campaign is dubbed "Give them distance."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I still remember what it sounded like," Wagner said. "It was quite a loud and sudden smashing sound."

This year, a state law that requires drivers nearing stopped emergency vehicles with flashing lights to slow down and move over was expanded to include any vehicle displaying hazard lights.

"If you're a mom with two kids in the back seat who stopped on the shoulder to change a flat tire, the law is intended to protect you," Illinois tollway Chairman Robert Schillerstrom said.

The law is named after Chicago Fire Department Lt. Scott Gillen who was killed by a drunken driver in 2002 while he assisted at a crash on the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Tuesday night, two Cook County sheriff's deputies were hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening after their squad cars were hit by a driver while conducting a traffic stop on the Jane Addams Tollway near Arlington Heights Road.

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"Too many lives are being lost on our roadways," Gov. Bruce Rauner said. "Last night we could have had a terrible tragedy."

Drivers who hit stopped vehicles with flashing flights could face fines of up to $10,000 and imprisonment of up to seven years if a fatality occurs.

Wagner, a father of two from Park Ridge, recalled the driver of the car was oblivious to his truck.

"They were traveling pretty quick and didn't even hit the brakes," he said. "There was no screeching tires. We were standing there awe-struck, then we caught our breath and had to turn on to work mode. We felt responsible for clearing the roadway."

Illinois experienced 1,073 traffic deaths in 2016 and the toll this year had reached 1,015 as of Tuesday.

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