The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

February 16, 2013

Courtesy governs state's funeral processions


Associated Press

— FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — Jim Mullins said when he was a child, he knew when a funeral procession was passing by because of the flags attached to the cars.

"They don't do that anymore," Mullins said. "There's no way to identify a funeral procession."

AAA recently released a report detailing a growing disregard for funeral processions, especially in metropolitan areas. The report revealed at least two people were killed and 23 injured nationwide in funeral procession crashes in 2011.

Mullins was recently driving in a funeral procession that lost its police escort after it left the Florence city limits and entered Muscle Shoals.

The procession was broken up because there was no police car to allow it to continue through traffic signals. As a result, other cars cut in and out of the procession.

While he initially considered the drivers' actions disrespectful, Mullins said he later decided that much of what happened was because of drivers not recognizing the line of cars as a funeral procession.

"The only thing to indicate it was a funeral procession was a lot of us had our emergency flashers on," Mullins said.

Mullins, who moved to Sheffield from Illinois about three years ago, said the courtesy of stopping for funeral processions is prevalent in smaller communities where he has lived.

Most states require vehicles in a funeral possessions to have their headlights on throughout the trip, but some also require cars turn on their signal flashers, or to be marked with flags or placards in their windshields.

If it's not a law enforcement vehicle, the lead vehicle in a funeral procession in Florida must have a flashing amber light.

In Massachusetts, laws governing funeral processions don't include processions with 10 cars or fewer. In New Jersey, if a funeral procession takes longer than five minutes to clear an intersection, it must be stopped for at least five minutes to allow other traffic to pass.

Alabama State Trooper Curtis Summerville, a public information officer for the Alabama Department of Public Safety, said there are no state laws regarding funeral processions. And though it is a common practice, state law does not require motorists to pull over or stop for a funeral procession, unless a police escort requires it.

"It's courtesy and respect," Summerville said. "It's something we do here in the South."

Summerville said he worked a crash involving a woman whose vehicle struck a vehicle that had stopped for a funeral procession. The driver was unaware of the regional custom and struck the car on the crest of a hill. Summerville said no one was hurt and the cars were drivable.

Summerville said Alabama cities can have their own ordinances regarding funeral processions. In Huntsville, for example, funeral processions cannot have more than 25 vehicles.

Muscle Shoals City Clerk Ricky Williams said in Muscle Shoals, it's illegal to drive through a funeral procession while it's in motion or any other motorized procession when vehicles are conspicuously designated. That provision does not apply at intersections where traffic is controlled by traffic signals or a police officer.

Each driver in a procession is to drive as far to the right of the road as possible and follow as closely and safely as possible. Williams said those rules date back to 1979. Police will provide escorts with advance notice if they have the time.

Florence police Officer Ricky Sharp said a city ordinance gives funeral processions the right of way when on city streets, except to emergency vehicles such as police cars and fire trucks. It's also unlawful to cross a funeral procession, either at an intersection or other location.

Sharp said there also is a state law that prohibits blocking a funeral procession or disrupting a funeral or memorial service either at a funeral home, church or cemetery. The offense is a misdemeanor for the first time and increases to a lesser felony for a second conviction.

Sharp said the city will provide escorts, but funeral homes must contact police one day before the funeral. Only one funeral may be booked per hour, he said. An escorted procession can only contain 15 vehicles, including funeral home vehicles. Escorts are not guaranteed and will be provided on the availability of officers and the call volume at the time.

Sharp said funeral homes can hire additional officers for special escorts, with a minimum of two for larger processions.

Steve Chenault, manager of Elkins Funeral Home in Florence, said they have to use escorts when a graveside service follows a funeral.

"We always get help from the Florence Police Department," Chenault said. "We are just very appreciative of the fine job that the Florence Police Department does and does without cost or charge."

Chenault said there have been occasions where a car in an adjoining lane will come through a procession to get to another lane.

"In my judgment, all of those things are done because the driver is not paying attention, rather than being any lack of respect," Chenault said. "We have had comments from out-of-town families about how respectful the other drivers were on the roads we were traveling."

Even though it is not required, Chenault frequently sees drivers even in the opposite lanes pull off the road as a sign of respect.

"We are still living in a very traditional and respectful part of the country," he said.

Florence police Capt. Rolando Bogran agreed and said he has not noticed an intentional lack of respect or disregard for funeral processions.

"What we have noticed is that if we don't have a police vehicle at the tail end, sometimes drivers attempt to pass the last vehicle in the procession," Bogran said. "We believe this is simply because (drivers) aren't aware the vehicle is part of the procession."

Mullins suggests that along with driving with headlights and emergency flashers on, vehicles in a funeral procession should be marked with flags or some other obvious identification.

With all the distractions drivers face today, Sheffield Fire Chief Dewey King said it might be time to discontinue the time-honored tradition of the funeral procession.

King said it's only a matter of time before someone participating in a procession is injured by a driver in a hurry or one who is not paying attention.

Instead of having a procession, King said after the funeral service, people should arrange to meet at the cemetery at a certain time.

"There's going to come a time when somebody has to address this," King said.

Presently, however, Sheffield and other Shoals police departments continue to provide escorts for funeral processions unless there is an emergency situation.

"If we have a bank robbery going on, you ain't going to get no police escort," said King, who also is serving as the interim Sheffield police chief.

Escorting a funeral procession normally requires a patrol car to lead the procession and another to block intersections before the procession arrives to allow them to proceed.

King, who worked at a funeral home for 13 years, said processions usually start out fine.

"Whenever you have a funeral procession, the first four or five cars work perfectly," King said. "Then you get some stragglers."

Some people might not get in line as quickly as others, and King said he worries that a driver could get broadsided while passing through an intersection against a traffic signal.

"Police don't have the numbers to block each intersection to make sure they're clear," King said. "There are no markings on the cars, and people are not paying attention driving cars today."