So assume you’re driving in a state with the following two separate traffic laws:
- When police, fire and rescue vehicles or ambulances approach you using a siren, flashing light or both, you must immediately yield the right-of-way; and
- Upon approaching a stationary emergency vehicle that is displaying a flashing, blinking, or alternating emergency light you must proceed with caution and, if reasonable, with due regard for safety and traffic conditions, yield the right-of-way by making a lane change into a lane not adjacent to that occupied by the stationary emergency vehicle or, if changing lanes would be unreasonable or unsafe, proceed with due caution and maintain a safe speed for highway conditions (called the “move-over” law).
Now, you find yourself in the following situation:
Driving in the right lane of an interstate highway, you see ahead of you the flashing lights of several stopped state police cars on the right shoulder. According to the second law above, you must move over to the left lane, so you do.
Once you move into the left lane, however, you pass a state police car parked on the left shoulder (it does not have its lights flashing). After you and several other cars pass it, it pulls out and turns on its lights.
According to the first law above, you must yield right-of-way to the approaching police vehicle, so you should move back into the right lane to let it pass. When you do, it doesn’t pass you, but neither does it pull in behind you and signal that you should pull over and stop. It continues to stay just behind and to the left.
What do you do? If you stay in the right lane now and pass the police cars parked on the right shoulder, you’ll be guilty of violating the second law above. If you move back into the left lane in front of the patrol car there, though, you’ll be guilty of violating the first law.
When this happened to me (yeah, it’s not a hypothetical) when we were returning to Dulles airport after flying out Virginia earlier this month to attend my nephew’s college graduation in Roanoke, I slowed down and stayed in the right lane, and immediately after passing the line of police cars parked on the right shoulder, the police car in the left lane finally passed me, and pulled off the road, while the last car in the line already on the right shoulder pulled out, turned on its siren, pulled me over, and ticketed me for violating the second law above.
When I explained the extenuating circumstances, the officer would hear none of it and issued a summons to appear in court next month. Noting, though, that I live in California, he said I could just plead guilty and pre-pay the fine by mail or online, and not have to physically appear.
Were I still living in Virginia, I absolutely would have gone to court to fight it, based on the fact that the second law says that the lane change must be made “if reasonable,” and that given the circumstances I did not feel it was reasonable and that I was, in fact, put in a no-win situation by the officer’s refusal to consider the impact of the second police car on my decision. But because I couldn’t afford to take time off from work and buy an airplane ticket to fly back across the country for the court appearance, I reluctantly decided I would just pay the fine.
So I went online to try to find out how much the fine was, and how to pay it. I thought it would be around $30, which is the amount of most such fines for failing to yield right-of-way. The URL for the court system listed on the summons and on the automated voicemail for the county court, however, was incorrect. The automated message included the fines for only some traffic violations, but not for the one for which I was cited, and the message cut off in the middle every time I called it. I finally found my court case information online today (the summons was issued May 4, but they only finally entered it into their system this morning), but the option to pre-pay my fine wasn’t active. So I found another phone number and finally reached a live person who told me that there was no pre-payment available for that violation, that I had to appear in court, and that the penalties can be quite severe (apparently a fine of up to $2500 and, under certain circumstances, license suspension and up to one month in jail!). When I explained that I live in California, and appearing in court would be difficult, she said that I could send a letter in my stead which would be attached to my case information and read by the judge at the time of my hearing.
So that’s what I’ve done. Now I keep my fingers crossed and hope that either the trooper doesn’t show up the day of my case, or that the judge agrees that what I did was “reasonable,” especially given that I was in a no-win situation.
I’m not heartened, however, by the person on the phone’s assertion that an absence on my court date, even with a letter, usually ends in an automatic guilty finding. Nor by the fact that this was clearly a sting operation: there was no real emergency, just four state police cars taking turns pulling people over in a taxpayer-funded version of automobile leapfrog (once one person was pulled over by one officer in the line, then the next person who drove by was guilty, so they were pulled over by the last officer in the line, which then meant that the person who next passed them got pulled over by another one of the waiting officers, ad infinitum). And the action of the other trooper actually makes me feel entrapped, given that he wouldn’t pull ahead or behind me, but kept his car in a position where I would have to violate one law or the other.
I didn’t bring up those issues in the letter, of course, as I want to fight the charge strictly on the merits of my decision and the unique situation itself, not muddy the waters by making it look like I was attacking the state police or questioning either their motives or the validity of the law. I understand the intent behind the law, as several state policemen in Virginia have been killed when they’ve been struck by cars while in the process of issuing a ticket and standing next to someone’s driver’s side window, but I don’t like being set up for failure especially when throughout the incident I had been trying to obey the law, by moving over to the left lane in the first place, and then back to the right lane later.
It certainly doesn’t make me want to return to Virginia anytime soon, and when I do visit again, I have no intention of getting behind the wheel of a car there. My family will have to come pick us up at the airport.