SCITUATE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island State Police Cpl. Daniel O’Neill was sitting in his cruiser writing a ticket last February when a Jeep Cherokee hit his vehicle so hard that it went over the cruiser’s hood.
“I ended up breaking five ribs and I was out of work for six months,” O’Neill said. “I’ve been hit before and I thought I was going to be OK, but this was the worst.”
The crash was the fourth time O’Neill has been hit while pulled off to the side of the road in his 17 years on the job. The driver who hit him in February suffered serious injuries and is now facing drunk driving charges.
O’Neill said those scenarios are even scarier when troopers are outside their vehicles.
“When a car goes by you at 70, 80 miles per hour, it’s a feeling like no other because if you move six or seven inches to the left, your life could be over,” O’Neill said. “All we ask is people just give us room to work and protect you because we want to go home to our families.”
Motorists hitting cruisers is a growing problem in Rhode Island, according to data from the state police. There were 19 cruisers struck in 2021, up from 12 the previous year, a figure that includes crashes were the cruiser is stationary or moving.
Cruisers being hit while on the side of the roadway with their lights on is also up, rising from four in 2019 to seven in 2020 and nine in 2021.
State Police Col. James Manni said the increase in cruiser crashes is not unique to Rhode Island highways, and he recently discussed the topic at a meeting with his counterparts in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He said the problem has several causes, including more cars on the road and an increase in distracted or drunk driving.
“Very early on when I was a brand-new trooper a senior trooper told me, ‘Don’t worry so much about the firearms — worry as much about the traffic,'” he said. “That trooper was so right.”
Data shows drunk driving arrests by state troopers have increased dramatically, which Manni attributes to both more intoxicated motorists on the road and stepped-up enforcement. (He launched a special unit just over two years ago tasked with cracking down on drunk driving.)
After charging 415 people with operating under the influence in 2019, state troopers charged 603 people in 2020 and 953 in 2021 — more than doubling in two years.
(Story continues below graphic.)
Manni said the agency is also focusing on Rhode Island’s “move over law,” which requires motorists to move into the high-speed lane if there is an emergency vehicle on the side of the road. A violation of the law comes with a $95 ticket.
“We’re asking all Rhode Islanders and everyone who travels through the state to, please, when you see an emergency vehicle — whether it’s a state police cruiser, a DOT vehicle, fire apparatus or a tow truck — move over and change lanes,” Manni said. “It’s the law but we are also asking you to do it.”
Enforcement of the law has increased, according to data, with state troopers issuing 33 “move over” violations in the first 10 days of January. That’s already more than the average of 28 tickets per month that troopers issued in previous years.
Behind state police headquarters in Scituate is a secured fenced-in lot that has been dubbed “the boneyard.” It is littered with the skeletons of wrecked cruisers that have been struck by motorists in recent years. Manni said troopers – like O’Neill – have been seriously hurt in those crashes.
“The potential is there for these troopers to get killed,” Manni said. “That is one of the things I truly worry about and sometimes keeps me up at night.”
The last Rhode Island state trooper to die in the line of duty was Sgt. Walter Burgess, who was killed in a crash in November 1959 at 25 years old.
In October a New Hampshire state trooper, Staff Sgt. Jesse Sherrill, was killed when his cruiser was struck by a tractor trailer while on the side of the road. Manni was at a New England state police conference in Maine when news of Sherrill’s death broke.
“It was like you sucked the air out of the room when that message went out,” he said.
On top of educating the public about the move over law and stepped-up enforcement, changes may be coming to the fleet of state police vehicles.
“We have red lights on our vehicles, and traffic studies have shown that red lights show better in the daytime, blue better at night,” Manni said. “We are very seriously looking at changing the back of the lights from red and amber to adding blue lights somewhere in that configuration.”
More immediately, cruisers are getting what Manni described as “enhanced reflective tape” on the rear of the vehicles.
The most recent crash came just three days after Christmas when a cruiser was struck on I-95 in Warwick. The cruiser was pulled off to the side of the road with its lights on after conducting a motor vehicle stop. The trooper – who was seriously injured and is still out of work — was part of the drunk driving unit that was launched in 2019, and the driver who struck him was charged with driving under the influence and driving to endanger resulting in personal injury.
He hit the blue state police Ford Interceptor so hard that the cruiser was pushed into the back of the car the trooper had pulled over.
O’Neill is a K-9 trooper and had his two dogs — Ruby and Koda — in the cruiser when it was struck back in February. Fortunately, the steel reinforced cage protected the animals from serious injury, though their handler didn’t fare as well.
“My wife has gotten a lot of calls in the middle of the night and she is not too happy with everything that has transpired,” O’Neill said. “We thank God every day that I am here six feet above ground and able to do my job still.”