Basalt cops, state patrol mount special effort to get motorists’ attention on Highway 82 | AspenTimes.com

Basalt cops, state patrol mount special effort to get motorists’ attention on Highway 82

In between traffic stops on Highway 82 as traffic whizzed by Thursday morning, Basalt police Sgt. Aaron Munch recalled how a drunken driver ran him over while he directed traffic in 2002.

Munch, who was with the Glenwood Springs Police Department at the time, said he was standing, facing west in an intersection and was just turning counterclockwise when he saw headlights coming at him. A woman driving west in a Jeep Cherokee didn't see him after leaving bingo night at a nearby bar.

"I went up on the hood and broke her windshield," Munch said, recalling the odd sensation of being aware of flying into the air between the initial impact and landing on the hood.

He survived in remarkably good condition. He suffered a concussion and bone bruises.

That experience 15 years ago made Thursday's duty particularly meaningful. The Basalt Police Department was one of nearly 30 law enforcement agencies in Colorado making a concerted effort to enforce the state's "Move Over" law. The law requires motorists to move one lane away from law officers, safety crews, roadside workers, tow truck drivers and the like. If moving one other lane isn't possible because of traffic or width of the roadway, motorists must slow down.

Three troopers killed

In an effort to educate drivers, multiple agencies in the state were giving warnings or tickets to drivers who weren't complying Thursday during "Operation 1 Charlie 3." It is named in honor of Colorado State Trooper Cody Donahue, who was killed when the driver of a tractor-trailer failed to move over and struck him on Interstate 25 near Castle Rock on Nov. 25. Donahue was outside his vehicle investigating a crash at the time.

He was the third state trooper to be fatally hit by a vehicle in the line of duty over an 18-month period.

That statistic tends to stick in the minds of law enforcement officers who regularly are risking their lives by helping stranded motorists, investigating accidents and enforcing traffic laws — all actions that require them to be out among the traffic.

"We're out here on awareness," said Trooper Mark Carlton, who worked with Basalt officers Thursday on Highway 82 in the midvalley. "We push it big."

Three Basalt police officers, the trooper and a Pitkin County deputy sheriff coordinated efforts Thursday starting at 7 a.m. One officer would stop a vehicle on Highway 82 for a traffic infraction, usually speeding. The motorists would pull to the shoulder. The officer would pull in behind but not as far onto the shoulder in an effort to create a safe buffer.

Another officer would pull in behind the patrol car and monitor compliance from approaching traffic on the Move Over law.

Drivers warned, cited

Shortly after 11 a.m. Munch pulled a car over on westbound Highway 82 for speeding, east of East Two Rivers Road. Basalt Officer Jason Hegberg pulled in behind Munch a few moments later. Within a couple of minutes, a late model SUV flew by, making little effort to slow down and a belated attempt to move over while passing where Munch was at the window of the driver's car.

Hegberg stomped the gas pedal of his patrol car and quickly caught the SUV. He issued a warning for careless driving — failing to move over.

"Our agency is giving warnings for not pulling over," Munch said. They also were giving warnings for speeding and other infractions that prompted pulling over their first contacts.

By the end of the day, Basalt, Pitkin County and state patrol combined to make 101 traffic stops, 44 for failure to move over, according to Munch. He said he believed compliance with the Move Over law was better than usual Thursday because electronic message signs on Highway 82 announced the enforcement action.

Carlton said the state patrol believes drivers' habits won't change without a ticket. He was writing tickets for initial infractions (one pickup was clocked going 79 mph in the 35-mph construction zone at Basalt) and for failure to move over.

"We don't give a lot of warning on it because people are dying at the end of the day," he said. The law is the same in all 50 states, so he doesn't buy the excuse that motorists are unaware of the requirement.

Carlton said drivers tend to fail to move over for an emergency vehicle when they are on their phones or otherwise distracted.

"It happens every day, all day long," he said.

He's also noticed that approaching motorists move over less frequently when he is alone than when another law enforcement patrol car is backing him up.

2,000-pound missile

Carlton and Munch said when they make a traffic stop, they must focus on the occupant or occupants of the vehicle they are pulling over.

"You don't know who you are dealing with — a little old lady driving to the grocery store or a guy trying to kill you," Munch said.

While they keep an eye on traffic as best they can, it's impossible to know how close a car will come while dealing with driver of the pulled over vehicle.

"You won't see the 2,000-pound missile coming at you," Munch said.

Early in his career, the memory of getting struck by the drunken driver was on his mind while making traffic stops.

"I think there comes a point where you have to blank it out," Munch said.

scondon@aspentimes.com