'Move over' law is slow to take hold

More deputies killed in traffic than by gunfire
Shelley Fulmer's husband, Aiken County sheriff's Sgt. Jason Sheppard, was killed in 2006 while directing traffic.

 

 

Law enforcement deaths in the line of duty are often associated with gunfire, but traffic-related deaths -- including wrecks and deputies run over outside their cars -- outnumbered shooting deaths in 2009 and most of this decade.

That is in spite of the "move over" laws in all but three states that require motorists not just to change lanes but also to slow down when they see flashing emergency lights.

It's something Shelley Fulmer thinks about when she visits her husband's grave.

"Please pay attention and don't rubberneck," she said in a recent interview.

Years before he was Sgt. Jason Sheppard, he was a handsome cheerleader on the University of South Carolina Aiken squad. Fulmer, also on the squad, didn't take long to claim him.

"We knew pretty quick we wanted to be together," Fulmer said.

Over five years of shared classes and weekend road trips with the squad, their attraction developed into a deep-rooted love.

He proposed on their graduation night in front of a crowd.

"I could have killed him," Fulmer said with a grin.

They went "all out" for Fulmer's dream wedding, with friends and family packing Berlin Baptist Church in Salley.

Sheppard fulfilled his own dream with a shiny deputy's star from the Aiken County Sheriff's Office. Fulmer supported his decision, but worried about him every shift.

"You never know when you're going to get that call," she said.

Two years later, on Dec. 7, 2006, Sheppard, who had been promoted to sergeant in the civil division, was on his way home from work when he heard dispatch announce a fire at Verenes Industrial Park on U.S. Highway 1. He volunteered to direct traffic.

At 5:51 p.m., Sheppard was outside his vehicle, directing traffic with a lighted wand, when he was hit by an oncoming Honda CR-V. He was thrown 30 feet by the impact.

Fulmer was waiting at a nearby gas station with his hazardous material gear. Sheppard had asked her to bring it from home in case he was asked to assist with a chemical fire at the plant.

She knew something was wrong when she saw an ambulance race to the scene.

"I just got this feeling in my stomach," Fulmer said.

Deputies finally found her at the gas station and took her to Medical College of Georgia Hospital, where her husband had been taken by medical helicopter. As a surgical technician, Fulmer could accurately read the monitors surrounding Sheppard's bed and knew he had little chance of surviving.

"I'd almost rather not have known," Fulmer said.

At 11:45 p.m., she made the decision to turn off Sheppard's respirator. He was 29.

The driver of the CR-V, Linda Wyman, 62, of Asheville, N.C., was not charged in the wreck. Investigators said she changed lanes but was still slowing down from the 45 mph speed zone she was in when she hit Sheppard.

"This is just simply a tragic accident, and the driver of the vehicle that struck Sgt. Sheppard just did not see him," Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt said at the time.

Georgia and South Carolina both have "move over" laws. Fulmer, who remarried in 2009, said a lot of motorists change lanes but that few take the extra step to slow down.

Records from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund show that 164 law enforcement officers were fatally struck by vehicles from 1999 to 2009.

FIRST-RESPONDERS are not the only public servants listed under the law. Tow-truck drivers such as Donald Parrish, the owner of Ace Towing in Augusta, are also supposed to be protected.

Parrish said rarely, if ever, do motorists actually slow down when they spot his truck's flashing yellow lights.

"Maybe it's 1 or 2 percent. It's an insignificant amount," he said.

Parrish said he wears a reflective vest, turns on his rotating yellow lights and activates the truck's flashers before stepping out of the cab. Still, there are cars rushing by sometimes inches from his truck. If it gets too dangerous, Parrish said, he'll just wait for the road to clear.

"People should get over, but they don't," Parrish said.

An equally dangerous roadside job is construction work.

Tony Sheppard, the director of traffic engineering for the South Carolina Department of Transportation, said construction workers are all someone's brother, husband, sister or daughter.

"They're not there just to inconvenience you," he said.

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