December 27 2008
A few weeks ago, a driving trip to a customer in central Illinois was interrupted by a representative of the Illinois law enforcement community. This was more than a bit surprising to me, as it has been many years since I was pulled over for much of anything. I was further confused since I was driving less than the speed limit, wearing my seat belt (as always), not holding a cell phone, and operating a car in normal working condition. In fact, I couldn't think of anything I had done incorrectly as I slowly passed the police vehicle on the shoulder of Interstate I-55 south of Joliet.
Well, it seems that I had violated State of Illinois code 625 ILCS 5/11-907(c), also known as "Scott's Law". Illinois and many other US states have a "move over" law, which requires you to move at least one lane away from a stopped emergency vehicle if possible. I didn't know this law. Of course, "ignorance of the law is no excuse". I hoped that my honest admission would suggest to the officer that only a warning was necessary....unfortunately, he was a man of few words, and issued me a citation on the spot. OK -- I did something wrong, I should be cited.
If only that were the whole story.
It turns out that "Scott's Law" is not a simple traffic violation. You are required to appear in court, the fine is variable between US$100 and US$10,000, and your license can be suspended. Officer Friendly (I didn't get his name, so we'll call him that) handed me the ticket, which ordered me to appear in court in Morris, Illinois (80 miles from home) on December 24th -- yes, Christmas Eve -- at 7 AM.
The more I read up on this law, the more I was stunned at the abuse of legal authority. The law's intent makes perfect sense. Emergency personnel are in a hazardous situation where they are outside their roadside vehicles, and errant drivers have injured or killed in collisions resulting from this situation. But there are no shades-of-gray in the Illinois statute -- in my case, it was a clear day, I slowed down as I approached the stationary police car, I moved far enough away to be safe (but not far enough), and I was aware of where the policeman was as I passed. There was no real hazard to the situation -- not in the same way as if someone drives recklessly at 85 MPH. Still, no matter, the law is the law, I guess.
The threat that my license could be suspended for this incident left me stunned for days, and I eventually did some research on the web and hired a lawyer. What I learned was that the State Police are quite fond of writing this violation (especially to drivers ignorant of the law, like me), and the Illinois courts have just as much fun handing out fines. Though Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn got off with a warning, none of his readers did. It seems that our Illinois state government, while not busy with other activities, realizes the penalty is too harsh, though. Effective next week, Illinois won't suspend driver's licenses arbitrarily for this violation.
As for me, hiring a lawyer was the best thing I could have done. She handled the court appearance and negotiations for me, so that I didn't have to drive back to Grundy County on Christmas Eve. I ended up pleading guilty (to lesser charges), which chafes me to no end -- but a law is a law. My fine was $185, and I'm on court supervision for six months. Guess I won't be trying any 212 km/h maneuvers here at home anytime soon, but the case is closed.
I wrote this blog entry for two reasons -- 1) because I think many, many drivers in the US do not know this law and others like it, as evidenced by how many whizzed by in the right lane while I was pulled over, and 2) because in preparing to publish a year in review, I found several comments throughout the blog reminding me that it is OK to write about my personal life here. Admitting I violated a traffic law may be a little more on the personal side, but hopefully others will learn from my mistake. Besides, the customer I was visiting that day already heard this story -- it got the meeting started on a much more human level, and set up a really good interaction for the hours to come.