Roadside safety bill would protect first responders

By Melanie Conklin

After a reckless driver crashed into a fire truck that was responding to an incident in Waupaca Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) was called down to the Amherst Fire Department where, she says, Assistant Chief Brian Swan asked to talk about how the Legislature might be able to help. 

That was in 2018 and led to further conversations with that fire department, along with roadside responders throughout the state, Shankland’s legislative colleagues and stakeholders from around the country. The result was a bipartisan bill that passed the Assembly this week with a round of speeches and compliments across the aisle that was a love fest compared to the normal partisan banter.

In her floor speech advocating for the bill, Shankland quoted a woman whose husband, a fire fighter, was injured while working alongside a highway. She told Shankland. “They have gear to protect them from the fire. They have no gear to help them when a car hits them going 75 miles an hour.”

The bill raises penalties for various traffic violations, including reckless driving, when any emergency or roadside response vehicles are present and personnel could be at risk. Many of them are doubled and it brings them in line with penalties for reckless driving in a construction zone. Depending on the circumstances, there can be fines up to $10,000 or up to nine months in prison in the new ‘emergency response zone,’ where cell phone use is also banned and first responders are allowed to slow down traffic. 

The bill also requires the state Department of Transportation to undertake a campaign to educate the public, not only on these changes, but also on the risks associated with failing to take such basic safety measures as moving over for emergency vehicles, reducing speed and keeping off their cell phones in these emergency situations. 

“I’ve spoken with first responders from all over the state who say they would much rather run into a burning building than handle an accident on the side of the road, and I’ve also spoken with their families, who worry most when their loved ones have to respond to an incident on the highway,” said Shankland.

Emphasizing that her bill uses a three-pronged approach of education, prevention and enforcement, Shankland thanked all her colleagues from both parties for advancing the bill. In the highly partisan, Republican-controlled Legislature, it is rare for a bill authored by a Democrat to come to the floor for a vote — and the lead author on the bill as it came to the floor was not Shankland, but rather Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R- Clinton), followed by two other Republicans before Shankland’s name was listed.

Shankland doesn’t mind and credits Loudenbeck as a “great champion on this issue,” and said having her as the author was “very helpful in getting a unanimous vote.”

As the author, Assembly tradition gave the right to be the final speaker on the measure to Loudenbeck. She mentioned that she had been a volunteer firefighter and that her husband is a paramedic firefighter.

“We shouldn’t have to tell people that videotaping accidents involving fire trucks and apparatus and inclement weather … are not only inappropriate, they are downright appalling,” said Loudenbeck. “So the next time that you are driving in the car, please slow down. Put your phone down and have some respect for the emergency or roadside crews that are working on the highway.”

The measure passed on a unanimous voice vote and moved to the Senate where it is able to be scheduled for a vote, likely in the fall when the Legislature returns.

“It’s simple: we can do more to protect our first responders, and we can do more to protect all workers who are responding to an incident on the roadside or roadway,” Loudenbeck added. “We also can do more to take responsibility as drivers.”