James Garcia vividly remembers the cold morning of Jan. 28, 1994. He was at work as a paramedic, checking on a driver whose car slid off the side of a two-lane highway near Lexington. The driver was OK, but as Garcia entered the road near his ambulance, he was struck by a rubbernecking motorist going about 45 mph.

And he also vividly remembers his frustration after talking with the Highway Patrol about who was at fault: "I was 100 percent at fault for blocking his lane. I said, 'You've got to be kidding me. I ought to be able to stand in the road and do my job.' " Garcia took his gripe all the way to the top, and the head of the Highway Patrol told him bluntly that was the law. If he didn't like it, he could try to change it.

So Garcia has spent the past 14 years doing just that. The paramedic, who now lives in Summerville and works in Charleston, won a big victory this week when the House Judiciary Committee unanimously agreed to much stiffer penalties for motorists who don't slow down enough when passing a stopped ambulance or firetruck.

In 1996, two years after the accident that kept him out of work for 45 days and left him with limited movement in his left arm and leg, Garcia was able to get a state law passed requiring motorists to use extra caution when passing emergency scenes where lights are flashing. But he was disappointed when a newspaper accurately noted that the law sounded nice but had no teeth.

Garcia said he estimates that fewer than 20 motorists have been cited in South Carolina under that law, not because the problem disappeared but because police or highway patrolmen often ticketed these careless motorists under reckless driving or driving too fast for conditions — citations that carry a stiffer penalty.

That's why he is pleased that the General Assembly is expected to pass this bill this year. It calls for a fine of $300 to $500 for a first offense, plus four points against the motorist's license. A second offense within 10 years would result in a penalty of up to $2,000 or two years in jail. If a police officer, firefighter or paramedic is seriously hurt or killed, the motorist would face a felony charge punishable by $2,000 or up to 10 years in jail.

State Rep. Heyward Hutson, R-Summerville, has been working closely with Garcia, partly because he lives in Hutson's House district and partly because Garcia's story is familiar. One of Hutson's cousins was hit 50 years ago when he ventured out from his service station to try to direct traffic and was struck by a car. "He was lucky to get away with his life," he said. "He had a limp for the rest of his life."

Hutson and Garcia sat next to each other for almost three hours Tuesday afternoon as the Judiciary Committee held its debate. When it looked possible that the committee might adjourn before taking it up, Hutson quietly got up and urged them to look at it. It passed with just a minor tweak. They then shook hands.

Garcia has been so passionate that in 1995, a lobbyist complained that Garcia was working as an unregistered lobbyist. The S.C. Attorney General's office had to clear up the matter by saying those working on behalf of themselves don't need to register.

Even if the bill becomes law, Garcia says his work is far from over. In addition to encouraging other states to pass similar measures — about 42 already have since Garcia began his efforts — he has been working with the federal government on standards and practices that improve the safety of accident scenes.

And he said he wants to see an expanded public awareness push that ideally would include signs along highways warning motorists to slow down and use caution when passing emergency vehicles. "The penalty has never been the important thing for me," he said. "This law only comes in after there's been an incident. There's a lot we can do beforehand."

While his crusade has consumed much of his free time, and while he pays all his expenses out of pocket, he has received some reward: the satisfaction of knowing that these new laws and other efforts may have saved the lives of other firefighters, police and paramedics. "It's a number I don't know that I'm very excited about," he said.

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