What I Learned About Scott’s Law

About a month ago, my wife and I were on our way to dinner at a new restaurant when a cop pulled us over. I got a ticket. Then we continued to dinner, which sucked.

When I got home that night, I did some research on the law I had allegedly broken. It’s listed in the online Illinois code as 625 ILCS 5/11‑907(c), and the officer described it on the ticket as “Failed to Yield to Stationary Emerg. Vehicle (Scott’s Law).” That’s Red Flag #1 right there. As a general rule, any law named after a victim is going to be a bad law.

Lt. Scott Gillen was a Chicago firefighter who was tragically killed when a vehicle hit him while he was responding to another incident. In 2001, a bunch of Illinois politicians lead by Lieutenant Governor Corinne Wood got together to pass “Scott’s Law” to punish people who drive recklessly near emergency workers. Wood had this to say about it:

Scott’s Law’ is a vital piece of legislation created with the sole purpose of protecting emergency workers throughout Illinois. As it has been tragically proven, careless driving around emergency scenes can result in the injury or death to the firefighters, police officers, or other emergency personnel who risk their lives to save ours. This law will help protect those who protect us.

There was another purpose to Scott’s law, of course, and that’s to make a bunch of politicians look good by getting tough on a problem.

It’s not as if the State of Illinois made it all the way to 2001 without anyone realizing that it was a bad thing to run people over, and it’s not as if the guy who killed Scott Gillen got away with it. Scott’s killer is still serving out his 13-year sentence.

This law is supposed to punish drivers for reckless behavior even if there is no accident, thus reducing reckless behavior and therefore reducing tragic deaths. But Scott’s law doesn’t make it illegal to endanger police officers, fire fighters, and other first responders, because driving recklessly and endangering other people was already illegal. Scott’s law just makes it extra special illegal. It’s legislative theater.

I remember many years ago when the state legislature made it a crime to steal milk crates. Of course, stealing anything was already a crime, but they passed a special law to cover milk crates. This enabled politicians to go back to the small business owners who had complained and say “See! I did something about that!”

Whenever someone names a law after a victim, as in Scott’s law, I take that as a sign the the same political dynamic is at work. Some politician want to be able to tell people “See! I did something about that!”

This law isn’t just legislative theater, however. It’s badly written legislative theater.

Remember, the law was passed because a reckless drunk driver killed an emergency worker in a car accident. As the law is written, however, a driver is punished even if no one is killed, and even if no one is injured. The law doesn’t even require that there’s an accident. All you have to do is drive too close to an emergency vehicle on the side of the road.

Heck, the law doesn’t even require that a real emergency vehicle is involved: It applies to construction vehicles too, which is strange when you think about it. Emergency first responders have to go where the emergency is, which often means someplace unsafe, so it’s reasonable to have special driving rules around them. Likewise, police officers who pull over an offender have to stop behind him, so it’s reasonable to ask other drivers to give them room. That’s why a law to protect them is good idea.

Construction vehicles are in a completely different situation. Construction is a planned activity. It happens when and where the construction supervisors want it to happen. There’s nothing emergency about it. If they want traffic away from the workers, they can put up barricades. If they want you to slow down, they can set a low speed limit. If they park a construction vehicle too close to traffic, it endangers you and me as much as it endangers them.

According to a 2001 press release on State Representative Rosemary Mulligan’s web site:

“Scott’s Law” also would cover Illinois highway maintenance personnel who risk their lives on a daily basis.

I’m not saying road maintenance is a perfectly safe job or that reckless drivers don’t kill highway workers, but if the workers “risk their lives on a daily basis,” that’s a frank admission that road work in Illinois is poorly planned by people who are negligent about worker safety.

By the way, that’s what the cop accused me of: Passing a construction vehicle without changing lanes. But the law is so broad that it makes me look like I’d endangered an emergency worker, when all I did was pass a truck. That’s Red Flag #2.

Reading through the language of the statute, I was startled to find this scary clause:

A person who violates subsection (c) of this Section commits a business offense punishable by a fine of not less than $100 or more than $10,000.

Ten Thousand Dollars? Oh my God! I presume judges impose fines that are reasonably in proportion to the offense, but nothing in the statute requires them to do so. That’s red flag #3.

The law also includes clauses for suspending driving privileges. As I read it, I didn’t do anything that would trigger those sections, but I could be wrong. That’s red flag #4.

You probably think I’m whining here. After all, this is just a traffic violation. (Although, did I mention the $10,000 fine?) However, the problems with this law illustrate some troubling issues with other criminal laws.

First, there’s the over-use of suspension of driving rights. Maine just passed a law which imposes a 3-year suspension for too many tickets over a 5-year period, and some people are losing their right to drive for things they did before the law was even passed. (Like the law I’m complaining about, Maine’s law is named after a victim.)

Defenders of such rules are fond of repeating that “driving is a privilege not a right,” but that’s a meaningless phrase outside a courtroom. If you drive a car, it probably affected your choice of where to live and where to work. You probably also chose schools and doctors because they were within reasonable driving distance. All that planning will be disrupted if you lose your license. Whatever else driving is, it’s a practical necessity for many people, and they organize their lives around it. Legislators should be more careful about suspending it.

Second, there are the surprising definitions used by the law. “Failure to yield to an emergency vehicle” sounds as if I almost hit a police car or didn’t make room for an ambulance, when all I did was drive too close to a parked construction truck. In a traffic law, this is merely annoying, but other laws have similarly unexpected definitions.

The drug laws are probably the worst. In some states you can be accused of drug possession just for being in the same room with some drugs, even if you’re just a guest at a party. Similarly, something as simple as passing a joint around a room can meet the legal definition of distributing drugs. Doctors can even be accused of distributing drugs if the police don’t like the way they prescribe painkillers.

Prostitution laws aren’t any better. In California, you can be arrested if an undercover cop offers to pay you for sex and you smile, because prostitution is defined as accepting an offer of sex for money, even if you don’t do anything. You can be arrested for giving a prostitute’s number to a friend, because pandering is defined as “encouraging” prostitution. And you can be arrested for providing day care services to a prostitute’s children because pimping is defined as receiving money that was earned in prostitution.

Third, there’s the weird overlap with other laws, making some things extra-special illegal. It’s illegal to sell drugs, and it’s even more illegal to sell them within 1500 (or whatever) feet of a school, or to have marijuana in the same house with a firearm. This sort of thing is almost always political grandstanding rather than considered lawmaking.

Given all that upsets me about this law, I wasn’t real sure what was likely to happen to me when I had my court date. So I did something I’ve never done before: I hired a defense attorney.

I’ll tell you what happened next in another post.

Update: Here’s the end of the story.

19 Responses to What I Learned About Scott’s Law

  1. Not in the sense that I’m curious whether you were convicted of something and sent to jail, but rather I’m excited to read the post. I like your style of writing these posts and they are a treat to read.

  2. Hello Mark,

    I had a similiar situation occur on August 20, 2007. It raining very hard and I was going about 40-45 MPH (the minimum speed)on I-55 near Joilet. There was a car about 3 car lengths behind me, and a vehicle in the left lane behind me but going much faster than me. A gentleman was pulled over changing a tire. A state trooper had just pulled over to assist and was getting out of his car as I was passing him. (his lights were flashing) As I got about a mile down the road I noticed I was being pulled over. He asked if I knew why I was being pulled over and I responded that I was sure it was not for speeding. He asked for my license and proof of insurance. I gave him my DL and was looking for my proof of insurance. He told me he was going to write 2 citations, 1 for failure to yeild, 2 for lack of proof of insurance. When he got in his car I found my proof of insurance. I got out and tried to give it to him, he tried to refuse it, then took it and was screaming at me to get back in my car. After about 30 minutes he returned to my car and gave me 2 citations, 1 for failure to yield, and the other for disobeying an officer. He refused to give me my DL back and informed me that I had a manditory court date. What the trooper was unaware of was that I called my ex-husband and put my phone on speaker as I was being pulled over. We were not alone and someone else was listening. His captain received 2 calls. 1 from me and 1 from my ex. He did apologize for the officers conduct on behalf of the dept. Needless to say I have also done some research and because I am not guilty I hired an attourney. A friend of mine was written up recently for the same offense and her DL was suspended for 3 weeks until she contested and went to court. The other thing that concerns me is that law enforcement promises to “Protect and Serve”. This guy left the guy with the flat tire to come after me. If that is what “protecting and Serving is about then we are all in a lot of trouble. Anyone that prefers to harrass other law abiding citizens has serious issues, and should not be out there practicing law enforcement. Thank God my ex was listening and is a witness to this guys beligerant behavior!! I am a registered nurse in the city of Chicago, I know what yielding to an emergancy vehicle means. Going the minimum speed limit on the interstate for a parked emergancy vehicle if you can’t change lanes or slow down more is legal as stated by my friend who works for the DEA. Good luck!!

  3. Reference the long story about receiving a ticket for it, boo-hoo. How about paying attention and just MOVING OVER?? To you, 45 MPH may seem slow enough, but why don’t you try standing on the side of the road stationary and having a car whiz 3 feet by you at 45…let me know how “stupid” that ticket is then. Pay attention and move over. Over 30 people a year are killed by clueless drivers like you.

  4. I agree that paying attention and moving over is a good idea, and it’s usually what I try to do. To this day, I have no idea what exactly the cop got me for.

    On the other hand, if we’re to believe this law, then every time an ambulance, police car, or construction vehicle is stopped by the side of the road, the adjacent lane is effectively closed. If people really obeyed this law, all those moving lane closures would snarl traffic beyond belief.

    Of course, that doesn’t really happen because hardly anybody obeys this law. And for that reason, I doubt that it’s keeping anybody safe. It’s just another reason to fine people and another feel-good law for the politicians.

    So, the politicians have passed a law that most people ignore, that does nothing significant to protect anyone, and that costs ordinary drivers time and money.

  5. As a California, I am puzzled, not the intention of the law but the law itself. The intention of the law is to call attention to the passing vehicles so they can be careful enough so that they don’t endanger those people who need to work on emergency or anything else necessary on the road side. I have to agree with the comment Posted by: dbt | Apr 29, 2008 12:11:36 PM at

    http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2008/04/passing-along-a.html

    Sudden slow down or stop in a busy freeway could actually cause more safety risks to other drivers, especially those far behind the location of the emergency vehicles and can’t see the proper warning lights or signs.

    There are many ways to reduce the risks for the officers carrying out their duties on freeway. For example, as the police directing any moving vehicles on freeway for law enforcement or roadside assistance purposes, they should find a safe place for the targeted and their own vehicles to stop. If they can’t find any safe place on the freeway to execute their duties, they should consider the next freeway exit as the place to do so. When situations prevent the selection of locations for carrying police duties, e.g. the targeted vehicles can’t move, or the roadside constructions occurring, the police should set up proper warning signs at least 1000 feet before the spot where the roadside activities are taking place to call attention to the normal passing vehicles.

    This law only trade one kind of risks with another, transfer the burden and responsibilities of the people who stop for emergency or law enforcement purposes to the millions drivers who pass by. This law does not achieve the intention of the traffic laws, which is reducing the risks for all of the drivers on the road.

  6. What about the “FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT?” Did you ask your lawyer about that and if it could apply?
    “Spreading Awareness” laws like that of “Scotts Law” made in the State of Illinois, whether it is a good idea or not, should be clearly defined and written in the Drivers Education Book we study for our exams, if we are to be fined for a criminal offense, and there is nothing about “Scotts Law” in it. The fine is is scary.
    Question is, can one actually get “Supervision” on a criminal offense ticket in State of IL? Will the States Attorney allow it?
    SH

  7. I’ve been yielding to emergency vehicles for 25 years. This was a construction truck.

    Unlike vehicles responding to emergencies, they get to choose where to stop, and they ought to pick a safe place. A heavy construction vehicle near the traffic lanes is much more of a danger to me than I am to it. In fact, it’s much more of a danger to construction workers than I am. Most on-the-job road construction injuries are due to jobsite hazards, not passing traffic.

  8. “I’ve been yielding to emergency vehicles for 25 years. This was a construction truck.

    Unlike vehicles responding to emergencies, they get to choose where to stop, and they ought to pick a safe place. A heavy construction vehicle near the traffic lanes is much more of a danger to me than I am to it. In fact, it’s much more of a danger to construction workers than I am. Most on-the-job road construction injuries are due to jobsite hazards, not passing traffic.

    I’ll bet you only turn your lights on when it’s dark because you can see just fine, too.

    I deliver rural mail (meaning from my car) and have to make numerous stops along busy highways. I DON’T get to choose where to stop, and I’d be willing to bet that a lot of times the construction workers don’t, either. I’m always amazed at the number of people who don’t even seem to realize my car is there, let alone get over to allow a little space between our bumpers, or even slow down a little. I plan to bring this to the attention of the state lawmakers, and it’s my hope that they’ll extend Scott’s Law to include mail vehicles.

  9. Do you have a lot of public transportation in those rural areas where you work? I ask this because the Secretary of State’s office uses Scott’s law to suspend people’s licenses for 90 days. Without being able to take the bus, anyone ticketed for passing your stopped car improperly will probably be unable to make it to work and lose their jobs. In this economy, they could end up losing their home.

    You’re asking for a pretty harsh penalty for a traffic violation that harms no one and damages no property.

    And for whatever it’s worth, my car has driving lights that are always on.

  10. You can pick this law apart all you want but it is a good law. I guess if you run 20 miles over the speed limit you shouldn’t get a speeding ticked either because no one was hurt. Give me a break, the law is the law, Obey it or get a ticket, just that simple.

  11. The idea of being careful around emergency workers is a good idea. The idea that the crime of staying in your lane is so dangerous as to warrant a 90-day license suspension…not so much.

    I realize the harsh penalty is to encourage people to obey that law, but that’s not working either. If the 10 people ahead of me don’t change lanes, and the 10 people behind me don’t change lanes, do I really make it any safer by changing lanes? Or does the pressure to make a sudden lane change increase the risk of an accident more than it reduces the chance of injuring an emergency worker?

    As for speeding, you’re being sarcastic, but there’s a germ of truth in your suggestion. Traffic speed enforcement—especially where they still worship 55—is mostly about the revenue (as is much of traffic enforcement). And if you really believe that an officer stopping someone on the side of the road is in as much danger as Scott’s Law suggests, isn’t the state endangering officers just to raise ticket revenue?

  12. I am going to have to disagree wholeheartedly on this one. My mother, an ER nurse, was there the night they brought Scott in. She said in 10 years of working in the ER and seeing everything you could imagine, it was this night that haunts her and it was this night that made her leave. Scott knew he was dying and asked her to pull out his wallet and show him his kids one last time. As a person who has a father, uncle, husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law who all work as firefighters I think this law is completely warranted and necessary.

    People drive like idiots in Chicago, they don’t care about anything but getting there fast and they don’t think twice about other peoples safety. I have seen people blow through intersections to beat an ambulance(almost causing an accident), cut off a fire truck, park in front of a hydrant, and speed past accident scenes countless times. My biggest pet peeve is when people do not pull to the right for emergency vehicles. What if it was your loved one in the back of that ambulance or your loved one trapped in that burning building? You would want those ignorant people who refuse to pull over punished for their careless actions, wouldn’t you? If you get the ticket, you’ll damn sure think twice about refusing to pull over next time won’t you? Firefighters ran into the twin towers to save people like you and me, give them some respect and pull over and slow down. If you don’t, you deserve what you get.

  13. I am either missing something, or I don’t understand what the big deal is. Slow down and get over when somebody is pulled over! What is your problem? This should not ever be an issue. If you were on the side of the road, you would want somebody to get over for you. I have had my license for 11 years now, and one of the first things that my grandpa taught me was to yield to stopped vehicles(emergency, commercial, or privately-owned.).
    I am sure that you did not get a $10,000 fine. However, if somebody else disobeyed this law and an officer as injured or killed, I bet that $10,000 fine would be less that sufficient.
    Yes, I think you are whining…but only because you are!
    Oh, and regarding the law in Maine, if you can’t drive, then you shouldn’t drive. You sir, seem to be one of those people that has a problem with authority…and any law in general.

  14. Bethany, It’s not really a big deal, but it happened to me so I wrote about it. I’ve learned that my stories of encounters with the court system attract a lot of attention for some reason. For example, here you are, commenting on a story three years later.

    I have a problem with foolish authority and foolish laws, especially when the law is passed for obvious political gain or revenue raising and not for a real purpose, and I think Scott’s law is one of those laws (although hardly the worst example).

    For one thing, as is typical of many laws named after victims, it would not have saved the guy it’s named after, who was killed by a drunk driver who sped through an accident scene. As you said, a $10,000 fine “would be less than sufficient.” In fact, the guy who killed Scott Gillen got a 13-year sentence under then-existing law, and is still in jail today (I checked).

    From what I’ve seen, almost no one obeys move over laws–most people haven’t even heard of them–which likely means the law isn’t really helping anyone. (I’ve been unable to find any scientific studies on the subject.) It seems to be just a feel-good law, and yet another excuse for raising revenue with traffic fines.

    By the way, part of the reason this incident pissed me off is that I do, in fact, move over for emergency vehicles whenever I possible can, and have done so for almost 30 years of driving. In this case, however, there was no emergency vehicle. It was a road construction truck.

    Emergency responders have little control over where they stop on the side of a road, but construction crews are in complete control and should avoid getting out of their vehicle in dangerous circumstances. If they need to work on or near a busy road, they can set up barricades, change speed limits, and redirect traffic. They have complete control of the road. Construction zones are littered with construction vehicles, and it’s ridiculous to treat each of them as the legal equivalent of a parked ambulance with its lights on.

  15. So Katrina, what happened when you went to court for Scotts Law violation???
    Reply
    Katrina says:
    August 25, 2007 at 3:02 pm
    Hello Mark,

    I had a similiar situation occur on August 20, 2007. It raining very hard and I was going about 40-45 MPH (the minimum speed)on I-55 near Joilet. There was a car about 3 car lengths behind me, and a vehicle in the left lane behind me but going much faster than me. A gentleman was pulled over changing a tire. A state trooper had just pulled over to assist and was getting out of his car as I was passing him. (his lights were flashing) As I got about a mile down the road I noticed I was being pulled over. He asked if I knew why I was being pulled over and I responded that I was sure it was not for speeding. He asked for my license and proof of insurance. I gave him my DL and was looking for my proof of insurance. He told me he was going to write 2 citations, 1 for failure to yeild, 2 for lack of proof of insurance. When he got in his car I found my proof of insurance. I got out and tried to give it to him, he tried to refuse it, then took it and was screaming at me to get back in my car. After about 30 minutes he returned to my car and gave me 2 citations, 1 for failure to yield, and the other for disobeying an officer. He refused to give me my DL back and informed me that I had a manditory court date. What the trooper was unaware of was that I called my ex-husband and put my phone on speaker as I was being pulled over. We were not alone and someone else was listening. His captain received 2 calls. 1 from me and 1 from my ex. He did apologize for the officers conduct on behalf of the dept. Needless to say I have also done some research and because I am not guilty I hired an attourney. A friend of mine was written up recently for the same offense and her DL was suspended for 3 weeks until she contested and went to court. The other thing that concerns me is that law enforcement promises to “Protect and Serve”. This guy left the guy with the flat tire to come after me. If that is what “protecting and Serving is about then we are all in a lot of trouble. Anyone that prefers to harrass other law abiding citizens has serious issues, and should not be out there practicing law enforcement. Thank God my ex was listening and is a witness to this guys beligerant behavior!! I am a registered nurse in the city of Chicago, I know what yielding to an emergancy vehicle means. Going the minimum speed limit on the interstate for a parked emergancy vehicle if you can’t change lanes or slow down more is legal as stated by my friend who works for the DEA. Good luck!!

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