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Heed rules of the road for funeral processions

It's an overcast afternoon, and you're driving down Interstate 75 when you see a string of cars rolling slowly in the opposite direction with headlights ablaze.

The police cruisers in front give it away. This is a funeral procession. On I-75.

The Lane Ranger witnessed that very thing not too long ago, and he must admit it gave him the willies. The genteel thing to do when you see a funeral procession is to pull over, but that's not exactly the safest course of action on the interstate.

It got the Ranger to thinking: What are Florida's rules regarding funeral processions? How do you get a police escort at your funeral? And is it really safe to have a funeral procession on the interstate?

Let it never be said that the Florida Statutes aren't thorough.

Title XXIII, Chapter 316.1974 deals specifically with funeral processions. Here are a few facts:

Unless you're driving an emergency vehicle, you must pull to the shoulder to allow a funeral procession to pass by. If you don't, it's a traffic violation.

Cars in a funeral procession may proceed through intersections "regardless of any traffic control devices or right of way provisions." If you're part of a procession, you must have your lights on. Chances are you wouldn't receive a ticket if you didn't light up, but you might.

Except in cases of gross negligence, the funeral home won't be held responsible for any death that occurs in a traffic accident involving a funeral procession. As if this topic weren't morbid enough.

Herb Popple, manager and funeral director at Stowers Funeral Home in Brandon, says he has never witnessed an accident involving a funeral procession.

"I've heard of them," he says. "It's usually just where somebody's not paying attention."

Popple also said that in about 95 percent of his funerals, he hires at least three police officers to escort the procession.

That's where Deputy Wayne Daniels comes in. Daniels is an off-duty coordinator with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, meaning he's in charge of assigning off-duty deputies to work football games, special events and funeral processions.

Not every law enforcement office offers escorts. The Tampa Police Department does, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office doesn't.

But in Hillsborough County, the option is there for any enterprising deputy looking to make some extra cash.

Deputies must take a course in funeral escorting, Daniels said, to ensure that they know the law.

Funeral homes must hire at least two deputies to escort 20 cars; another officer must come along for every 10 additional cars.

Plus, it helps to learn the layout of county cemeteries.

"If you're not familiar with where the cemetery is, you'd best not be the lead car," Daniels says. "It gets a little tricky then."

The cost to you, the bereaved consumer: $69 per deputy, plus expenses.

So what about that procession on I-75?

"They try to avoid the interstate if at all possible," Popple said. "But if we get on there, we're going to get up to a minimum of 40 or 50 miles per hour."

Interstate processions aren't that common. But they do take place, especially when the funeral and burial take place in different counties. Many veterans, for example, are buried at Florida National Cemetery in Sumter County.

"We will escort them to the interstate or basically to the last exit before they leave the county, and then they're on their own," Daniels said.

As long as the cars are going the minimum speed _ usually 40 mph on the interstate _ it's all legit.

_ The Lane Ranger is currently stuck in traffic. But he can be reached at cridlinsptimes.com.

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