Eau Claire, WI – Nels Gunderson, owner of I-94 Towing and Recovery in Osseo, said he has seen it all in his 44 years operating a towing service and serving on the Osseo Fire Department for 42 years, including the deaths of emergency responders trying to lend aid at accident scenes.
It was because of the frightening and tragic stories Gunderson and other emergency responders can tell that they gathered at the Chippewa Valley Technical College Emergency Service Education Center Nov. 13 in recognition of Traffic Incident Response Week to send the public a message: Move over. It’s the law and their lives depend on the public obeying.
Gunderson was there when Trooper William Schoenberger was killed while blocking traffic during a car fire response in 1993. Gunderson’s service was there when Trooper Deb McMenamin was killed in 1980. And Gunderson has seen many secondary accidents involving civilians during accident responses.
Chippewa County emergency responders are still haunted by the death of Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Zunker, who was struck by a vehicle on Highway 53 near Bloomer in 2008.
“If there’s one message we can declare with volume and tenacity, it’s move over and slow down,” said Wisconsin Secretary of Transportation Dave Ross.
Wisconsin’s Move Over law requires drivers to shift lanes or slow down in order to provide a “safety zone” for a squad car, ambulance, fire truck, tow truck, utility vehicle, or highway maintenance vehicle that is stopped on the side of a road with its warning lights flashing, according to the DOT website.
“I take the law very seriously,” said State Trooper Al Christian, who patrols out of the Eau Claire headquarters. “It affects me and my fellow emergency responders. Move over, and if you are unable to move over, slow down and use good judgment.”
The message is particularly important on Wisconsin’s high-speed and high-volume highways, like I-94 and U.S. 53 and U.S. 29.
“When you are out there, it’s like they’re shooting bullets at you, going by at 70 mph,” Gunderson said.
Gathered at the event were the students in the CVTC Law Enforcement Academy, who are on a career path that will put them in such danger as well.
“We need to teach the next generation of emergency responders that they are targets out on the highway,” said Eric Anderson, the academy director. “More officers are killed in the line of duty in traffic incidents than from any perpetrators out there.”
Law enforcement and emergency responders are trained in CVTC program to keep themselves safe by using best practices, including lights on the scene and high visibility clothing. However, it is the public that needs to be more safety conscious.
“We take precautions for our own safety, but we need help from the public,” Christian said. “Many members of the public don’t obey the law. I have had close calls myself.”
A major point of emphasis is not driving impaired or distracted.
“I was out there when distracted driving wasn’t an issue,” Gunderson said. “There were no cell phones. When you’re behind the wheel, just drive. It’s that simple.”
“The broader message for drivers is end the drunk and drugged driving and the speeding and distracted driving and we’ll have safer roads,” Ross said.