Funeral processions aren't immune from the rules of the road

Traffic Talk

February 04, 2003|By Jody K. Vilschick | Jody K. Vilschick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

IAM a faithful reader of your column," Bill Miller said in an e-mail he sent last week. "I never thought I would be writing to you, but I had a strange thing happen to me the other day. I was stopped at a light at Route 1 and Route 175. I was the first car stopped at the light and a hearse came up behind me and started flashing his lights. I saw through my rear view mirror that there was a funeral procession behind me. He wanted me to run the light. When his flashing lights did not get me to move, he began honking his horn more and more impatiently until the light turned green and we proceeded."

"Was I wrong not to run the light or pull over and allow the procession to run the light?" he asked.

Funeral processions do not have carte blanche to willy-nilly run through red lights. I verified this with Cpl. Chris Neubauer of the Howard County Police Traffic Enforcement Division.

"Funerals have the right to proceed through an intersection only after entering the intersection on a green," Neubauer said. "When a procession comes to a red light, it is required to stop like any other nonemergency vehicle. Your reader did the right thing."

Shame on that funeral home and hearse driver for trying to pressure you to put yourself at risk by entering an intersection illegally.

In fact, I have big concerns about funeral processions entirely. Better ways exist to honor our dearly departed. Funeral processions should be banned because they present a danger on the roads to the cars in them as well as the cars that encounter them.

I have firsthand experience. In late September 2001, I participated in a funeral procession against my better judgment. My brother-in-law, who was driving, asked for directions to the cemetery so he could proceed independently, but the funeral director barked at him to "put your headlights on and get in line." Cars participating in the funeral procession, which took place on crowded roads on Long Island, N.Y., were not marked with signs or flags.

Halfway to the cemetery, we were almost killed as we entered an intersection against the red, closely following the car in front. A car going with the green light suddenly realized we were going through the red light and slammed on its brakes and skidded to a stop - inches away from crushing in the driver side of the car, where I was sitting in the back.

What if that driver had not been able to stop? I know of other people who have been in accidents while driving in a funeral procession. Luckily, they were covered by medical insurance, and the hospital stay was short.

The funeral procession is an outmoded tradition that deserves its own last rites. Way back when, the community followed the coffin on foot from the church on one end of a village to the cemetery on the other end. With the advent of cars came automotive funeral processions. But what may have worked 50 years ago when less than half the population owned cars certainly does not work now, when drivers are not being taught how to deal with the funeral processions they encounter and the capacity of roads is strained even under normal traffic conditions.

Nothing in the Maryland Driver's Handbook addresses what to do when you come upon a funeral procession, and it is my guess that new drivers are not learning what to do when they encounter one. Funeral processions have the right-of-way over everyone but emergency vehicles and postal vehicles, so yield to them.

Having participants turn on their headlights does nothing to indicate the presence of a funeral procession - a belief shared by Ellicott City resident Lisa Quinn.

"Now that most cars have headlights on anyway, it's hard to tell when it's a funeral procession," she said. "Especially with the amount of traffic on certain roads, if you haven't seen the hearse or lead cars, how would you know?"

Until our political representatives come to their senses and make funeral processions illegal, I recommend at the very least: Post bright, noticeable cones or flags on the outside of participating cars. Small signs on the front dash are woefully inadequate.

Funeral directors should pass out directions to the cemetery so that those who wish not to be in a procession can find the cemetery and so that those separated from a funeral procession can find the cemetery.

Police or funeral home employees should be posted at signaled intersections on the route of the funeral processions.

Funeral processions should stay off major arteries, such as Interstate 95 and Interstate 295 and other busy roads.

Funeral processions should occur only during nonpeak driving hours or on weekends.

Meanwhile, I call on our elected representatives to ban funeral processions. And until then, if you agree, make it clear to your relatives that you do not want a funeral procession to "honor" you after you depart.

What's your traffic trauma? Contact Jody K. Vilschick at elison@us.net, or send faxes to 410-715-2816. Technophobes can mail letters to Traffic Talk, The Sun in Howard County, 5570 Sterrett Place, Suite 300, Columbia 21044.

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