Traffic incident management improves cooperation in Maine
Drivers don’t always observe the Move Over Law, which is mandatory everywhere except for Washington, D.C. It was determined in Maine that one quarter of all traffic fatalities result from secondary crashes caused by such factors as distracted driving. Maine State Police decided enough was enough, and set in motion a program that many other states use: traffic incident management. In no time at all, it was apparent that disobeying the Move Over Law was just a part of the problem.
Lt. Bruce Scott of the MSP Traffic Safety Unit explained the T.I.M. program is not just a Maine project. It was designed by the Federal Highway Administration Program, funded by Congress and launched in 2005 to increase responder safety.
“We look at it as a team sport, complete with a game plan,” said Scott, “and the real goal is to reduce first responder injuries. Three personal injury crashes occur every minute across the country, and that puts many others in potential harm’s way from responding to secondary incidents, as well.” Scott elaborated, “Any accident that ties up or otherwise blocks the lanes of traffic will resolve itself in ways you are not happy with, because it affects roadway reliability as well as other vehicles on those roads.”
Scott’s department got involved in 2011. “We sent people out of state for training, thinking it was a good idea, and when we did that, we learned that there was a good model to follow and a shift away from the traditional thinking. In the past, if there was an accident, we would immediately begin to investigate and usually shut down the road until everything was managed. But when traffic is backing up, and drivers down the road, out of sight of the accident perhaps, don’t know it’s backing up, we have to mitigate that situation as quickly and safely as possible by opening up lanes and letting other traffic pass through. We understand that the whole investigation is very important, but we now do a quick assessment to see if we can open those other lanes, get people moving and work the scene the best we can.”
Another thing that has changed thanks to the training is that such incidents are now seen as multi-jurisdictional. “There is no one person in charge, and the training includes scenarios for leaders on scene, allowing us to see through different eyes and experiences. We all have a function there, but now we know how to do them all at the same time, which cuts down on all forms of response time, while still respecting the inspection that is equally important,” said Scott.
“We build relationships, learn what other agencies do and share what we do, as well. Prior to this, no one could really work in a unified system. No one knew what the other departments were doing. We think of it as a game plan now. In the shutdown days, there was the chain of, say, firefighters to law enforcement to the department of transportation, and that all takes time. For every minute of obstruction, it takes four minutes to recover; therefore, an hour of closed traffic can take four hours to clear up and get it all running smoothly again, which cuts down on road rage and secondary crashes,” explained Scott.
Training across the state and the country became very important, and taking an active role to make the training available as much as possible — and at no cost — is equally important.
“We work together. This training isn’t mandatory but certainly encouraged. However, our state police do require it, and it has become part of the basic training new officers receive right from the beginning,” Scott explained.
While the T.I.M. training is often during the daytime “office hours,” it can also happen during off times upon request. Federal highway sponsors often fund the instructors when needed.T.I.M. classes are now being held across the United States, with the goal to provide training in every state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The classes take about four hours, and there is never enough time to cover every single thing the instructors would like. There are quarterly meetings and annual meetings, as well as correction reviews every quarter, “to determine what we learned, what can we do better next time? Wherever we felt frustrated or bothered by shortcomings, we would look at the big picture to determine what to do so it wouldn’t happen again. This is something that goes from leadership on down to the crew, say, that wasn’t a good place to park your cruiser or pumper, and here’s why, and what would you do next time?” Scott explained.
It has resulted in not just changes to how first responders perform their work but also in how equipment is carried. It has even resulted in changes to their vehicles.
“All MSP cars now have push bumpers,” Scott said, “and they can push a car off the road, even if it’s on its side or on the roof, which clears the road much sooner than if we waited for a wrecker as we used to do. We keep this focus in mind: If we can get a vehicle into the ditch, we can concentrate on what else we need to do immediately. Speed is important, but so is safety. I know we’ve prevented many accidents this way, but you can’t really prove a negative, can you?
“But say a car breaks down on a bridge, shutting down traffic from both directions. We can tell them, look, we’re going to push you safely off this bridge. Before, we would sit with lights on as warnings, and that could and did cause more crashes. Now we’ve worked at determining the right amount of lighting; is it too much or not enough? We don’t want to blind the drivers, and too much lighting is too much stimuli, adding to the stress of the situation. This carries over into every facet of our work, because the public has, and should have, the expectation of reliability.”
And there are so many other obstacles first responders can face — tractor trailers that flip over or trees down in the road. Scott said, “The department of transportation has to be called in sometimes and so does the Environmental Protection Agency because we’ve seen planes crash on the highway, necessitating HAZMAT protection and precautions. Sometimes a funeral home has to be called. With this new focus, we just get those roads open first, if we can, and then deal with the other parts of the job.”
As for violators of the Move Over Law, Scott said, “Well, there is a fine, currently up to $355 plus fees and costs. This doesn’t increase with repeat offenses, but the problem with that is that you can’t leave a scene if someone cuts so close that your hat blows off your head! So now, at every scene, we have an officer whose sole duty is to deal with these, and there are often so many they can’t keep up. And if you can’t get them stopped for a ticket, the driver could potentially think, ‘Well, it must not be that important; they didn’t come after me.’ Sometimes they may not think of vehicles as part of the Move Over Law, but utility vehicles, tow trucks and all stationary emergency vehicles are there for a reason, and we want our people safe when they’re working.”
Scott said this program is strongly encouraged everywhere. “And the networking involved has even gone so far as to mend relationships — always a good thing when you’re working together. You want the best relationships possible. Networking has removed barriers we didn’t think of before when all the training we had was just for our own departments. Sharing frustrations about what we’ve learned helps us all.” He added, “We do scenarios in this training, like, okay, here’s where you parked your fire truck or ambulance, what problems might that cause? What would be a better situation? Or here’s the ambulance. Tell us what you’ll do with it. This has so improved since I came on board in 1998, because in those days, I would have to call and request help that might take two hours to get. Now with the MSP and the DOT working together, I don’t have to ask because they’re listening on the radios, and they head out and show up on scene ready to help. I’ll be driving to a situation and see the lights before I get there. Since they’ve all taken this training, they can take an active role.”
One of the more unusual things shared in the T.I.M. program is a video from a few years ago taken at the scene of a multi-vehicle crash, where the fire chief was arrested. It all started because of where the fire trucks were parked.
“Yes, that really happened, and in the classes, you’ll hear gasps and ‘No way!’ and so on, and we have to say that it did happen. Not a good way to deal with things — that fire chief sued and won! We always want to be able to work together for the good of our community. That’s what we’re sworn to do: serve and protect. Law enforcement has two forms of contact — hard contact when the situation demands enforced behavior and consequences. Everything else we do is soft contact, and it’s like saving money in the bank, building trust and goodwill — credit, if you will — and if we have to withdraw some of that for certain situations, well, then we’ll need to earn it back again,” said Scott earnestly. “Because what it comes down to is that managing traffic and incidents is really managing people, and the last thing I want is for anyone to see us not working cooperatively together when we’re there to save your life.” T.I.M. has given the MSP and other departments the life skills they might never have earned any other way, skills that serve them well not only on the job, but in every other aspect of life. And isn’t that what we all want?
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