Letter from the Editor: We need to talk about Scott's Law

I actually wasn't planning to write a column this week, but because I'm fired up and have something of a platform, here we are: We need to talk about Scott's Law.

You also may know it as the "move over" law - it requires drivers to slow down, change lanes if possible, and proceed with caution when there are emergency vehicles, including tow trucks, with flashing lights in or alongside the road. It was named for Chicago Fire Department Lt. Scott Gillen, who was struck and killed at a crash scene on the Dan Ryan in December 2000.

This is a very personal topic for me for a few reasons, so I'll start with a really upsetting Saturday night at work in January 2019.

Early in the evening, we started getting word of an off-duty Illinois state trooper who, while on his way home from his shift, had stopped to help at a crash on I-294 near the Willow Road exit in Northbrook and was hit by a driver who tried passing him on the left shoulder. Initial reports sounded serious but not tragic.

But as the night went on, we could connect the dots.

The injuries were really bad.

An off-duty nurse stopped and gave him CPR.

He was taken to Glenbrook Hospital in critical condition.

When we got a photo of him attached to a statement from now-former state police Director Leo Schmitz, I didn't even have to open it. I knew what we'd heard unofficially was now official: He'd died from his injuries.

More than 20 years in newspapers have taught me to compartmentalize things to get the job done. This was one of the times I couldn't. I shed a lot of tears when I got home that night: For Christopher Lambert, who died unnecessarily, and for his wife and their young daughter, because he wouldn't be coming home.

Christopher Lambert's face, name - and especially his wife's exquisite grief, sensitively captured in photos at his funeral - have remained etched in my mind ever since.

But some of my tears that night in January 2019 were also selfish ones for my own family, because it could just as easily have been them.

My brother, Marc, and brother-in-law, Kyle, both are on suburban fire departments, and both of them work at crashes on expressways sometimes.

Marc and Kyle also have to deal with a surprising number people who don't want to share the road with them.

Marc has told me several stories over the years; Kyle chimed in earlier this week.

"There are often issues with drivers not moving - or even trying to move out of our way - while we're driving," Kyle told me. "People are careless around accident scenes and will just drive right through them while we're trying to work."

It happens even though firefighters don't make it easy for them to do so.

"We have rules about using our rigs to block as much of the scenes as possible," Kyle said, plus crews are required to wear special reflective gear. "We do our best, but there are still a few individuals who try and sneak through."

An accountant from Wisconsin was charged in the crash that killed Lambert, and one of those charges was violating Scott's Law. Another Illinois State Police Officer, Brooke Jones-Story, was also killed by a driver accused of violating Scott's Law not long after Lambert died in Freeport, west of Rockford.

Despite their deaths and many other crashes before and since then, drivers still seem to be lax about the move-over law.

Last week a state trooper was hospitalized in serious condition after being hit while investigating a crash on I-55 near Route 30 in Plainfield Township. Less than 24 hours later - and not far from there - another trooper was hit on I-80.

In fact, according to the state police, over the course of three days last week, a total of six ISP vehicles were hit by people disobeying Scott's Law.

There have been 10 so far this year, compared to just 15 for all of 2020.

COME ON. How hard is it to just, you know, NOT HIT PEOPLE AND EMERGENCY VEHICLES.

The people are wearing special reflective gear manufactured to be highly visible, as Kyle said.

The vehicles are hard to miss - they have flashing lights. The same flashing lights that give us all a grabber if we see them in the rearview mirror and know we're about to get a ticket.

Just before the recent crashes, a state task force formed by Gov. JB Pritzker in 2019 had turned over findings from its study about why people ignore Scott's Law and recommendations on how to make things safer.

I haven't read beyond a summary, but I would think the first step to making things safer is to be more thoughtful about other people: Wherever you're going can't possibly be more important than whatever is going on behind those rigs and flashing lights.

When you think about driving around them on the shoulder, think about the person you love most standing there or sitting in one of those vehicles filling out paperwork: How would you want people driving then? Or when you think you can squeeze through traffic to reach the exit, but it requires driving thisclose to a paramedic working on a victim or crews trying to cut somebody out of a wrecked car, remember that could be Marc or Kyle, or somebody you love.

I've also put a picture of Christopher Lambert here, but not just to take up space. It's here to put a human face on the section of 294 dedicated to him near the Willow Road exit that many of you likely drive past every day.

I put his photo here so that, when you come across flashing lights, hopefully you'll think of him.

• Melynda has been at the Daily Herald for more than 21 years. She's currently on assignment, but will be back to writing her column in a few weeks.

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