Heads up, Marylanders! We’re surrounded by states that have steer clear laws, with stiff penalties for violation. Ignorance of these laws is no excuse.

“What’s a steer clear law?” you may say.

Not all states have this law, but in these surrounding jurisdictions, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, there are laws requiring drivers to slow down and move over a lane, if possible, when passing a stopped police or other emergency vehicle. Break these laws and you can even go to jail! The precise language and penalty varies from state to state, so check out the hyperlinks for specifics.

Marylanders may not know these laws exist, because Maryland and the District of Columbia are among the dwindling number of holdouts. To date, 43 states have passed steer clear laws. (This chart is helpful, but some of the links are dead.) States enacting these laws have publicized them widely, but there has been little or no fanfare about them here in Maryland.

A version of the law was introduced in Maryland earliy in 2008, but unfortunately, House Bill 131 failed to move forward in time and died by the time the session ended. Sponsored by Delegate Frank Conaway, Jr. (D., Balto.), the measure would have required drivers to maintain a safe distance and to reduce speed before passing emergency vehicles parked by the road with their lights flashing. It also required drivers to move a lane away from the emergency vehicle, if practical, assuming there is another same-direction lane to shift into. Otherwise, drivers must slow to a speed “that is sufficient to ensure the safety” of police and other nearby first responders.

Failure to obey the statute would have resulted in a $75 fine, which is quite mild, compared to versions of this law that have passed in other states. Look for the proposal to be re-introduced in 2009.

If you do some interstate driving, especially over the holidays, you must know about these statutes, which are also known as slowdown, move over laws. Some versions of the law make you slow down and move over for tow trucks as well as for police and other first responders.

Even without such a law in Maryland (or for that matter, the District of Columbia), and even without specific advice to this effect in the Maryland Driver’s Handbook, it’s a good habit to slow down and steer clear of stopped, standing or parked police and emergency vehicles. No matter what state you’re driving in, why risk lives when it’s so easy to be safe?