You pull up to an intersection to find a long line of slow moving cars streaming slowly but surely through the intersection. You look around for signs of what is going on. Is there an accident nearby and traffic is being detoured? Perhaps. Is there construction ahead? No orange cones so, no. And then it hits you; it must be a funeral procession. The question then is, what do you do? You think back to drivers ed. Nope, they didn’t cover this in class or else you weren’t paying attention. In the past few weeks several large funeral processions rolled through downtown Portland prompting many drivers to play out some version of this internal conversation. So, what do you do when you encounter a funeral procession and what should you do if you are driving in one?
Local resident, Jenni Fitzpatrick was attending the funeral of her husband’s aunt recently, when they had a near miss. According to Fitzpatrick, “...they barely missed us thanks to them last minute locking up their brakes. Procession started pulling out of St. Patrick's... first car stopped for all of us, SUV behind that car passes them in the middle turn lane at the light then slams to a screeching halt, cussing out his window as we are all pulling out when he realizes he has to wait.”
Obvioulsy the cussing at morners is inappropriate, but what should that driver have done? A good place to start is with the law, specifically Michigan Compiled Law 257.654, which we all probably didn’t pay attention to in drivers ed. According to Portland Police Chief Star Thomas, here in Michigan the law says,
“A motor vehicle forming part of a funeral procession, when going to a place of burial, shall have the right of way over all other vehicles except fire apparatus, ambulances, and police patrol vehicles at a street or highway intersection within this state if the vehicle in the funeral procession displays a flag which shall be fluorescent orange in color, and upon which shall be printed, stamped, or stained a black cross, the star of David, or the crescent and star. The lead vehicle and the last vehicle in the funeral procession may carry an additional flag. The flags shall not contain a name embossed or printed on the flag, except the word “funeral”.”
So, if you encounter a funeral procession, stop and let them pass. Don’t pass them, or try to cut through. Easy enough, right? Slow down, or the next funeral may be yours, eh!
But what is you can’t tell if the long string of cars is part of a procession or not? According to more than one eyewitness report, at least some of the cars in the processions that happened this past week did not display orange flags denoting they were part of the funeral procession. One witness says that, “the line went past and then about 20-30 cars without flags kept coming. I assume they were part of the line but just didn’t have flags...I ended up sitting there for a good 10-12 mins until a car finally stopped and let me cross. I assume that was the end but there were more cars than not without a flag...”
Michael Lehman of Lehman Funeral Homes says, “flags are important for everyone’s safety and awareness.” While what witnesses saw this last week isn’t uncommon, “we have plenty of flags,” says Lehman, and, “we always have a parking lot attendant outside, rain, snow or shine,” to distribute flags for procession vehicles.
So with no shortage of flags, why do some procession participants not use them? According to Lehman, “the biggest problem is that people do not decide beforehand...to be part of the funeral procession and do not feel the need for a flag on their car...We do the best we can to make sure those in the procession receive a flag. It is very important to have a flag placed if you will be part of the procession.” In fact, according to Portland Police Chief Star Thomas, “only those cars that have the orange flags are operating within the law that allows the procession to have the right-of-way,” to proceed without stopping though a stop sign or traffic signal.
Chief Thomas also helped dispel a common misconception about the use of headlights in funeral processions. Some people mistakenly believe that turning on your headlights or “high beams” on is a suitable substitute for displaying an orange flag. However, Thomas says, “no, headlights alone are not adequate although they may provide additional safety features to bring attention to their vehicle.” Specifically she said that driving with your brights on is actually illegal in Michigan if you are within 500 feet of oncoming traffic.
Mr. Lehman says that in his twenty years as a funeral director he has never had an accident occur during a funeral procession. That’s a streak he is keen to maintain. He offered the following safety tips for those participating in a funeral procession:
Arrive early to make sure you get instructions before the procession starts.
Turn on your headlights to increase your visibility to other drivers.
Do not put more than a car length or two between your car and the one in front of you (unless you are on a highway) to avoid confusion.
Make sure your car is displaying an orange funeral procession flag. If you don’t have one make sure to ask for one.
For other drivers, Lehman offered the following etiquette tips to help show respect for the family of the deceased.
If you encounter cars with mourners, be polite, pull over, and wait for them to pass before proceeding.
Show respect by not honking your horn, revving your engine, or acting impatient in any way.
Do not try to join the procession.
Do not cut into a procession.
“One of these days, you might find yourself participating,” says Lehman, “so follow the Golden Rule and treat the mourners the way you would want to be treated if you had just lost someone you cared about.”