The woman pulled left to pass a slow car and was face to face with the oncoming procession. Spooked, she swerved back right and lost control. Her car crashed through a backyard and flipped over.
Joe Merritt, the Tampa Bay area funeral home director who was leading the funeral procession the woman almost slammed into passed her moments later. Her face was squashed against the glass, but she was uninjured.
“Folks just have a one-track mind when they’re driving,” said Merritt, in a recent article about the incident. “They don’t even see the deputy in front of them.”
There is a growing concern among funeral home directors that drivers these days are disregarding the code of conduct for driving through a funeral procession. What is that code? The procession always has the right of way and when you see one coming you should slow down and let it pass. In cases like Merritt’s, not only are people not slowing down, they are speeding up. The result is a growing number of funeral procession related accidents and a general breakdown in the etiquette regarding processions, say many directors. “Years ago, everyone pulled to the side of the road and stopped when they saw a procession coming,” explained Randall Earl, an Illinois funeral home director, in a recent USA Today article. “That tended to go by the wayside.”
Just earlier this year in upstate New York, a 63 year-old man riding a Harley in a funeral procession was flung to the pavement after a car not in the procession made a sudden stop. The man died from head injuries. Often, the injuries involve police officers, who are assigned to detail processions in many precincts. Some police departments do the work free of charge, while others charge anywhere from $50-150 for what is often a three hour event. In Plant City, Florida, just down the road from where Merritt almost got hit, a police officer on a motorcycle was escorting a funeral for a man who had been killed by an IED in Iraq when a truck darted out of a Dairy Queen parking lot and cut into the procession line. The officer was injured and had to be taken to the hospital.
In Fort Smith, Arkansas, the police department has stopped leading funeral processions through red lights and stop signs because of the dangers associated with unruly oncoming vehicles side-swiping processions. “We were seeing more crashes at intersections,” one officer told the local news, “the key is to have (an officer) at the intersection to stop cars going through the crossroad.”
Liability and cost concerns have prompted several police departments to forego taking part in funeral processions all together, reports the USA Today article. Police in Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, Minneapolis, Las Vegas and Los Angeles only provide an escort for the funerals of police officers, firefighters or military personnel killed in battle. And police in Gulfport, Mississippi are so swamped with procession assignments that the town recently passed controversial legislation that limits the number of vehicles allowed in funeral processions to five. The department was working up to six funerals a day, some of them so large that they required as many as eight officers.
In Los Angeles, police have actually been called to the scene of some processions because of a dangerous new trend of zigzag procession driving that has developed among gangsters, reported a recent Wall Street Journal article. They drive what is known as the “S”, weaving in and out of three lanes at once, said a funeral home director who operates in a rough part of town. When the director told one driver to stop a member of the procession said it was a way to pay homage to his dead homey. “I could feel myself reaching for my gun,” said the director, “but then I’m showing the same attitude as the knuckleheads.”
Sometimes, adding an officer into the mix only brings further chaos to a procession. Earlier this year in Chicago an off-duty police officer said she was hit on the left side of the face by a bottle thrown from a passing car. Enraged, she zigzagged in and out of a line of cars to catch up with the one where the bottle had come from, not realizing that she was weaving madly about a funeral procession.