Editorial: Use caution when troopers are pulled over

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 17, 2005

It’s hard to imagine that any highway motorist driving at the speed limit (or above?) wouldn’t automatically let up on the gas or hit the brakes &045; or both &045; at the sight of a patrol car on the shoulder with its emergency lights flashing.

Unless the driver is asleep at the wheel.

An initial investigation into a recent accident in which a semitrailer totaled a Minnesota State Patrol squad car on Interstate 35 in Pine County indicated that’s exactly what happened. The truck driver had fallen asleep.

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That’s a nightmare for the state troopers whose job it is to pull drivers over to the shoulder when they see them speeding or notice equipment violations. For trooper Matt Heaton, it was pure luck that he was on the right side of his squad car, investigating another accident when the big truck barreled into the car. Heaton was thrown several feet into a ditch, but only sustained minor injuries.

All drivers should know that they’re supposed to ease into the left lane when they spot an emergency vehicle pulled to the side &045; leaving plenty of space between the squad car and moving traffic. And though the incident didn’t occur near the now-closed Culkin rest area, it’s another argument toward reopening the facility. Without it, drivers on northbound I-35 must go 42 miles between rest stops, a distance that raises the possibility of danger, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation Web site, which warns: &8220;The probability of a nighttime, single-vehicle truck accident increases exponentially when the distance between rest areas increases beyond 30 miles.&8221;

Whether the state provides adequate rest areas &045; and it does in the area of the accident &045; drivers always have the option, and responsibility, to exit the interstate or at least pull over when they feel drowsiness coming on, or turn the wheel over to another driver if there’s one available.

Getting off the highway when drowsy and giving a wide berth to vehicles on the side of the road are things most of us take for granted &045; maybe too much for granted.

The near-tragedy that totaled a patrol car and sent Heaton tumbling into the ditch has given the jitters to other law enforcement personnel who ply the highways and byways of our region. It shows, once again, that when it comes to highway safety and rules of the road, we need to be reminded from time to time that nothing can be taken for granted.

Ignoring flashing lights by the side of the road can be expensive, if a driver is speeding, or deadly.

&045; Duluth News Tribune