Law enforcement officers have one of America's most dangerous jobs, but the danger isn't always posed by criminals. Sometimes, the most routine duties can put an officer's life at risk.
Police walk a fine line between life and death, and that line is often in the middle of a roadway. The danger became very real for a Bay County Sheriff's Office deputy last weekend when he was struck by a car while directing traffic at an accident scene. Deputy Jeff Duggins suffered only minor injuries, but not all officers are so lucky.
Directing traffic is not what law enforcement officers would call the "glamorous" part of the job. "It's very frustrating," said Sgt. Jon Morris, who supervises the Panama City Police Department's traffic unit. "It's the most frustrating thing I've experienced on this job."
And it can be hazardous duty. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a total of 153 officers have been struck and killed by vehicles since 2001. Forty-nine states have passed laws to protect police, ambulance crews and tow truck drivers while stopped along right of ways. Florida passed the "Move Over Law" in 2002, which requires motorists to move to the lane farthest from the stopped vehicles or reduce their speed to 20 miles per hour below the posted speed limit if a lane change is not an option.
Sgt. Morris said awareness is critical to safety. "We try to park our vehicles outside of the scene, down the road from the scene a little ways," he said. "In a sense, that's kind of going to be the first hint that there's something going on there."
When investigating an accident scene, Panama City police officers wear reflective vests and use cones, flashlights, strobes and flares to attract motorists' attention and direct traffic. Sometimes, even that isn't enough.
"Maybe it's a break from their normal routine and they're confused and they don't know where to go," said Sgt. Morris. "We recommend that [drivers] look at the officers… kind of make eye contact with the officers… and they will usually direct you in what direction they want you to go."
Failure to obey traffic commands or driving around a barricade could lead to a fine or even arrest. The Florida Highway Patrol recently completed a Move Over Law enforcement campaign in which more than 1,200 citations were issued statewide.