LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – A fatal crash on I-4 in Lakeland is the latest of the more than 1,000 crashes in Florida in the last five years caused by drivers not moving over for emergency responders, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
A survivor of this latest crash wants drivers to take the law seriously.
“Blink of an eye and everything changes,” said Mike DeLong, a Road Ranger.
DeLong is banged up. He’s shaken. But he’s alive and he’s thankful for that.
Monday evening, he helped a driver with a flat tire on I-4 and was finishing up the incident by doing paperwork in his truck.
“I was probably in the truck approximately a minute and a half when I was doing somersaults,” he remembered.
DeLong was hit from behind by a vehicle going approximately 70 miles per hour, according to Florida Highway Patrol.
“The lights were right where I got struck. They were 200 yards from my truck,” he said.
DeLong sustained minor injuries. The driver of the vehicle DeLong had pulled over to help was unharmed.
“If I wasn’t there, there was a car in front of me, he would probably be deceased. I feel like I saved his life by using my truck as a blocker,” said DeLong.
The driver of the vehicle that crashed, Joseph Schoenbauer Jr., 72, of Apopka, died. His wife was critically injured.
The investigation is ongoing into what caused Schoenbauer to crash.
“Everybody’s got a guilt complex, wondering ‘what could have I done?’ There’s nothing I could have done to change the outcome of this,” said DeLong.
DeLong’s longtime colleague, Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Mary Godino, was first on scene.
“You get tunnel vision when you travel at high speeds with your lights and sirens on knowing that somebody you know might be severely injured,” she said.
Crashes like this, she says, effect the psyche of emergency responders as they do their job on the side of the road.
She was hit once too in 2000.
“You see red lights, blue lights, I don’t care if they’re pink lights, you should try to yield because we’re on the side of the road working for a reason,” she said.
The move over law requires drivers to leave a lane between them and emergency responders.
“We need room to work. If this is three lanes out here, there’s plenty of room for you to move over,” said Sgt. Godino from behind the wheel of her cruiser on I-4.
If that’s not possible, drivers must lower their speed to 20 miles per hour below the posted speed limit.
Of the 231 crashes involving people failing to move over for emergency responders in 2018, eight of them were in Polk County, according to data from Florida Highway Patrol.
There were 13 crashes in Hillsborough County that year, 14 in Pinellas County.
Florida law enforcement handed out 16,717 move over violation citations last year.
A move over violation citation includes a more than $100 fine and three points on the driver’s license.
“It’s so dangerous out there,” said DeLong. “If they move over, that leaves a lane for emergencies if something goes awry. They think they can drive their vehicle. They probably can. But if a tire blows out, all of a sudden they can’t and I’m a victim.”