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To slow down and protect

As a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy, Felix Moret has run after convicts and arrested brawlers. But he says the most dangerous part of his job is writing traffic citations on the edge of busy roads.

He'll never forget the time a rock hauler came within inches of hitting him on Dale Mabry Highway. Or, the time he stopped a drunk driver on Linebaugh Avenue and his patrol car was rammed by another drunk driver while he was standing in front of it.

"Everytime I look at that video, the hair on my arms stand up," Moret, 48, said, referring to the crash on Aug. 25, 2001.

Though he has never been injured, the close calls have left an indelible impression on Moret. His response has been to champion a new law that requires drivers to slow down and move to the farthest lane when an officer is working a traffic stop.

It's called the Move Over Act. It became effective on July 1 and already Moret has earned a reputation enforcing it.

The law says when any public safety vehicle is parked on the edge of a road flashing emergency signals, motorists should vacate the lane closest to the vehicle if there are two or more lanes traveling in that direction. They should also drop their speed by 20 mph.

It applies to police, fire fighters and road rangers, who tow disabled cars off interstate highways and direct traffic away from accident scenes.

In December 2001, a 19-year-old road ranger was killed by a hit-and-run driver while he was placing cones on I-275 in Tampa to divert cars from a traffic crash.

Close to 1,800 times between 1996 and 2000, motorists in Florida crashed into working law enforcement vehicles that were stopped on the side of the road, causing five deaths and 419 injuries, according to the FHP crash database.

The reaction Moret gets when he stops people indicates there are lots of drivers who have not heard of the new law.

"I can't believe I'm going to get a ticket for something that's not been broadcast or communicated to the public," said Bernadette Vanosdal, who Moret stopped Nov. 14 on S Village Drive in Carrollwood. "I'm completely confused and more angry than anything else."

After explaining the law, Moret gave Vanosdal a warning instead of a ticket. He said he usually gives warnings for first-time offenders, unless the driver has seriously endangered him or another public safety officer.

Some motorists like Robert Dill could appreciate the law even though they didn't know they had violated it.

"It comes as a surprise to me, but I can understand it," said Dill, stopped that same evening on N Dale Mabry Hwy on his way home from the drug store. "It's for (the officer's) safety. I should have been paying more attention."

Other drivers were not so understanding.

"He should spend his time catching people who run red lights, not worrying about whether I'm moving to another lane," said Paula Custer of Land O' Lakes. "This ruins my day. Especially when you don't know what you did wrong."

Violating the Move Over Act carries a $60 fine. However, it is considered a non-moving traffic violation and does not affect insurance rates, Moret said.

The law requires the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to educate the public about the new law.

Ken House, the Florida Highway Patrol spokesman in Tallahassee, said information about the Move Over Act is on the highway patrol Web site. He said the agency also has distributed posters to highway patrol stations throughout the state.

House said the highway patrol also is working with the Department of Transportation to place signs along the state highways. One message tourists will hear while listening to the highway advisory radio system on Interstates 10, 75 or 95, is about Florida's Move Over Act.

"We have also designed a two-sided information handout the size of a citation which troopers can give to drivers when they stop them," House said. "There is no way to measure the effectiveness. But we have not had any officers run over yet."

The bill was sponsored by Victor Crist, Rep. (R-Tampa Palms) in the Senate and Mark C. Flanagan (R-Bradenton) in the state House. Members of the International Union of Police Associations initiated the move.

"This came about when we noticed the bill had been passed in other states," said Mark Haddock, the association's vice chairman for legislative affairs. He said the Florida legislation was modeled on laws passed in Ohio and Indiana.

"One of our biggest thrusts in this is not punitive, although there is a fine," Haddock said. "Our interest is educating people to help save officers' lives."

Haddock said it is a unique law in that it has an education component. Anyone who gets a driver's license or goes for renewal is given information on this law.

"Because our goal here was not to write tickets, but to stop the problem, we argued that without education, this law would be ineffective," Haddock said.

"Any fines collected go to the victims of anybody in public service who was killed this way in the line of duty. It goes to a trust fund for widows and children that pays for education."

_ Tim Grant can be reached (813) 269-5311 or at grantsptimes.com

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