State Patrol Sgt. Dan Lewis had stopped Monday to help a stranded motorist on the shoulder of icy Hwy. 52 just south of Cannon Falls, Minn., when -- BAM! -- a car that had been going 65 miles an hour slammed into his squad car.
"It hit hard," said Lewis, who was not seriously hurt. "I'm still extremely sore."
Authorities say that scenario has been all too common this winter, with troopers getting hit so often that the patrol pleaded Wednesday for the public to pay closer attention, slow down and move over.
From Nov. 1 through Wednesday, motorists hit 31 squad cars, compared with 13 collisions at this time a year ago. A whopping eight of this winter's wrecks happened since Sunday, when the most recent snowstorm tapered off, leaving roads treacherous.
Most of the squad cars were occupied by troopers. Tim Peterson's squad was struck Tuesday on Interstate 694 at Silver Lake Road in New Brighton after he stopped a suspected drunken driver. Peteraon was hospitalized with facial injuries, and another trooper landed in the hospital with injuries that Lt. Eric Roeske, a State Patrol spokesman, declined to detail.
Roeske said he expects them to fully recover.
The patrol said yet another trooper was hurt this winter when he jumped to escape an oncoming car and bounced off its windshield. "These are easily preventable," Roeske said. "Too often, people are driving too fast."
Such accidents strain the patrol's staffing, fleet and finances. Injured troopers needing time off have meant a "significant loss" of work hours, Roeske said. Meanwhile, the patrol has scrambled to find replacement patrol cars, he said, adding that the number of troopers on the roads hasn't been reduced.
Roeske said the cost of car repairs for 2011 is expected to "far exceed" 2010's preliminary figure of $200,000.
Trooper Andy DeRungs was parked on the shoulder of northbound I-35W at Hwy. 36 in Roseville on Monday, helping a driver in the ditch, when a car rear-ended him. The car was traveling about 40 mph and was one of several that went out of control behind DeRungs that morning.
"It shouldn't be a part of our workday to get struck," said DeRungs. "It's stressful coming to work for months knowing that you're going to be dodging cars every day."
Like Lewis, DeRungs went back to work as soon as he managed the situation.
"Even though you may want to go home, they really need you there," DeRungs said of his co-workers and the public.
Although both Lewis and DeRungs have been in accidents at other points in their careers with the patrol, they said their recent incidents aren't any easier to shake off.
"There's no doubt it has some effect the next day you go to work," DeRungs said. "You see your family differently when you go home at night. You're thankful to be there. It makes you enjoy them more."
The two both said they still have soreness in their necks, backs and legs.
Move over or slow down At Wednesday's news conference, the patrol urged drivers to observe the state's "Move Over" law. It requires motorists to keep a full lane's distance between them and a stopped ambulance, fire truck or law enforcement vehicle. If the lane change can't be made safely, drivers must slow down.
Defying the law can mean a ticket and fine of $115 to $125, depending on the county. From 2005 to 2009, the patrol cited 9,173 motorists for "Move Over" violations.
Roeske said a good share of this winter's squad-car collisions were caused by inattentive driving, not weather. Lewis said visibility was good when he was struck and that the driver should have seen him clearly.
It was unclear how many of the drivers involved in squad-car crashes were ticketed or charged.
"It doesn't matter the road conditions; drivers need to pay attention," Roeske said. "Drivers need to be alert for flashing lights and move over to ensure we can do our jobs safely, and the people we are helping are out of danger."
Meanwhile, Lewis and DeRungs said they're being more cautious on the roads, calling for backup when possible, clearing scenes quickly and avoiding blind spots.
This week marked the 33rd anniversary of the death of Trooper Roger Williams. He was struck and killed by an out-of-control vehicle while helping a driver on I-94 near Alexandria.
Staff writer Paul Walsh and University of Minnesota student Katherine Lymn contributed to this report.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708