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Woman who stopped for ducks faces life in prison

July 2, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

So how can a person pull over on the highway safely – and legally?

Would you think stopping your car to help ducks cross the street could land you life in prison?

For one Canadian woman, this could be a reality. Self-proclaimed animal lover Emma Czornobaj parked her car on a Montreal-area highway in 2010 to help a group of ducklings cross. She was recently found guilty of causing the deaths of a motorcyclist and his passenger daughter who smashed into her car and now faces charges that carry a maximum life sentence in jail, according to a recent story in USA Today.

This is a tragic story. Czornobaj certainly thought she was doing a good deed to save the animals’ lives, and I’m sure she never intended to cause anyone to be hurt, let alone to die, as a result of her actions on that fateful day. But for Andre Roy (who was allegedly speeding, going approximately 70-80 mph in a 60 mph zone) as he carried his 16-year-old daughter on the back of his motorcycle, there was a stopped vehicle in his path. This is how horrible and tragic car accidents happen every single day.

Since the story has been all over the news, I started wondering about what Czornobaj did.  I practice in this area of law, and what she did raised an interesting legal issue:

Is there a safe way to pull over on the highway?

And is it ever legal to do so?

Here are some legal tips on how to stop safely (Teaser: in most instances, you don’t stop):

Don’t veer for deer – or ducks: I know it sounds harsh, but the worst thing you can do is swerve your car — or slam on the brakes — to avoid a deer or another animal. It’s far better to kill the animal than it is to seriously kill yourself, a passenger or another by veering into oncoming traffic, slamming into a tree or getting rear-ended. For more information, take a look at my blog post on the best way to avoid a deer-car accident.

If you must pull over: If there has been a car accident or there’s an emergency, pull over to the far right side of the shoulder. Do not stop in the lanes of traffic. Remember, try to stay inside your vehicle until help arrives. Do not get out. As an attorney, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve helped who were hit and seriously injured by subsequent cars after they got out of their cars on a busy highway after a minor fender-bender or accident.

Special rules for trucks: When trucks must pull over for emergencies, truckers have duties according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs), including activating hazard lights, and using warning devices in a certain manner. Here’s more information on what truckers are required to do to stop safely and legally.

Is it legal to stop on the highway?

Published Canadian reports note that the case is an unusual one, in that Czornobaj faces a life sentence though there was no criminal intent tied to her actions.

In Michigan, where I primarily practice personal injury law, it is illegal to stop on the highway in most instances:

Under Michigan law, a vehicle “shall not be stopped, parked or left standing, attended or unattended”:

  • On a paved “highway” if the vehicle can be moved “off the paved or main traveled part of the highway”; MCL 257.672
  • On a “paved or unpaved part of a limited access highway, except in an emergency or mechanical difficulty.” MCL 257.672
  • Can’t interfere with “normal flow of vehicular traffic” (i.e., obstructing traffic)
    MCL 257.676b

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