In His Own Words: Virginia State Trooper Recounts Harrowing Incident, Urges All Motorists to Slow Down and Move Over

by Sr. Trooper John P. Houlberg Virginia State Police

Video from Trooper John Houlberg’s police cruiser when he was struck, Nov 22, 2001.

The summer months are fast approaching, and even with gas prices at record highs, our nation will see a large amount of traffic on our roadways. Excited children who are out of school for the summer will be riding in cars filled with vacation gear for a family outing or a simple visit to a tourist attraction. We have an ever increasing number of driver distractions, including GPS devices, iPods, cell phones and the like. With law enforcement officers out in full force during many of our peak driving times, there will undoubtedly be an officer or emergency vehicle on the side of the road, and we all know we cannot pass by without looking at what’s going on.

Have you ever thought, just as we shouldn’t focus on our mp3 player or cell phone while we’re driving, we shouldn’t be so concerned about focusing on our emergency vehicles on the side of the road either? Well, what do you mean by that, Trooper Houlberg? What I’m simply saying is this: if we are more concerned about trying to see what’s going on with that emergency vehicle on the side of the road with their lights flashing, how concerned are we going to be with making sure that the people in that vehicle have the room they need to do their job safely? Don’t believe me? Well let me recall my personal experience with this.

On November 21, 2001, which was the night before Thanksgiving (one of the peak driving times on our nation’s roadways), I had a vehicle stopped on the interstate in the emergency lane. I parked my police car just like we should, protecting me from the traffic. However, at 12:08 am, without a bit of traffic on the roadway, a motorist caught sight of those beautiful blue police strobe lights, and guess what? She drove right into the police officer standing in front of those lights. I was thrown up into her windshield, struck the sport utility vehicle that I had pulled over for speeding and came to rest in the emergency lane. I was med-flighted to the hospital, where doctors spent the next eight days determining what my injuries were and whether I would recover.

Over the next 12 months, after repeated surgeries and daily physical therapy, I learned to walk and then run. Finally, after building my strength back up, I returned to work. Ironically I returned to work on Thanksgiving weekend 2002. My family and co-workers were astonished: “You’re going back to work after a year; and on Thanksgiving weekend?” To me there was no other choice. I had waited a long time to climb back in that car, wear that uniform and enforce the law that meant so much to me. That’s the law of the road, the law that says we shouldn’t drink and drive, we shouldn’t drive in excess of the speed limit, we shouldn’t drive aggressively toward other motorists, we should wear our seatbelts to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries, and, which was very close to my heart, the law that says we should be aware of our emergency vehicles out there and afford them the room they need to do their job safely.

While the season approaching us is the summer driving season and not Thanksgiving, we can still take time to consider our emergency vehicles out there. Remember that old adage we learned in driving school or your parents taught you: “You drive where you look?” Just consider the last time there was a pothole in the middle of the road or a piece of wood on the side of the road. You stare at it and, sure enough, you run right over it. So instead of focusing on these beautiful emergency lights and considering what’s happening on the side of the road, let’s all try to think how we can help that emergency vehicle by providing them the room they need. Move over into an adjacent lane of traffic; if that’s not possible, slow down and give them as much room as you can. Try to limit the amount of distractions you have in your vehicle. Every second your eyes are off the road is a second you’re endangering your life and the lives of others.

I’m sure every police officer has a story about how they were almost hit, and there are many (like me) who have been hit by traveling motorists, either inside or outside of their cars. You see, my fellow officers and I are looking forward to these summer months with our families too, whether it’s a trip to the beach or a vacation or simply visiting somewhere for the day. This past year, we added 181 law enforcement officers to the walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. This made 2007 the second deadliest year for law enforcement since 1989, second only to 2001, when the terrorist attacks of September 11 claimed 72 lives. Just as tragically, 83 of the officers who died last year were killed in traffic-related incidents – the most law enforcement officers ever killed in a single year by vehicle-related crashes. We should be seeing these numbers decline every year, but tragically they have not. Fortunately, we can all contribute to the safety of our officers just by being aware of their presence and affording them the room to do their work.

Footnote: To help spread the word about traffic safety, Trooper Houlberg is participating in ceremonies at the Richmond Braves baseball game against the Norfolk Tides on Saturday, June 7. The game is being sponsored by the Virginia State Police’s HEAT Program: Help Eliminate Auto Theft. Trooper Houlberg is throwing out the first pitch, and there will be information about the importance of Virginia’s “Slow Down Move Over” law.