My God. There’s An Ambulance Behind Me. What Do I Do?

I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the rules of the road. No, I can’t quote every statute in every jurisdiction, or know the fine for doing 37 in a school zone, but I think that I know the basics.

I kind of take for granted, I guess, that everyone else should know the basics, as well. I try hard to pay attention to the road signs. I observe the changes in speed limits, when it is illegal to make a right turn, and I try to keep the music to a dull roar, so that I can hear any approaching emergency vehicles. These things were all taught to me (mumble) years ago in my High School Drivers Education class.

As someone who drives an ambulance in a 911 capacity at LEAST one night a week, I am routinely horrified by the gobs of folks behind the wheel who “misbehave”. I’m not referring to you, Mr. “Text-Messaging-In-The-Fast-Lane”, or you, Mrs. “Applying-Eye-Shadow-While-Approaching-The Stoplight”, or even you, Ms. “I-Think-I’ll-Change-My-Blouse-While-I’m-At-The-Stoplight-Behind-This-Ambulance- Because-I-Am-Certain-That-Nobody-Is-In-The-Back. After-All-People-Don’t-Ride-In-Ambulances-Right?” No, I’m referring to the guy who sees the ambulance coming with lights and sirens on, makes eye contact with the driver, and still pulls out in front. I’m referring to the guy who almost hit me on the scene of an accident near Lowe’s Island a couple of weeks ago, because the person trying to turn left near the accident wasn’t doing it quickly enough, and there was just enough space between the slow turner and my rear end, where I was assessing my patient’s injuries. Yes, even though the posted speed limit there is 45 miles per hour, it is NOT ok to do so through an accident scene.

However, the other night, my wife came home, and said she had heard a siren coming closer to her on Route 7, and she realized that she wasn’t sure what she should have done. The Fire Engine was approaching rapidly, and she felt that from where she was on the road (the left lane) and with the Fire Engine coming at her, that it wasn’t legal to move over two lanes to get to the right to pull over.

So after consideration, I decided to put together this section, giving my fellow humans the benefit of the doubt (more or less), and hope to provide some insights into proper behavior when an Emergency Vehicle is approaching. I will also let you know what I have seen on the roads in various situations.

Situation # 1: You are backing out of a parking spot onto a one way street. You are on your cellular phone, while you are backing. As you back out of the spot, you look to your left, and see an ambulance approaching with it’s lights on, as well as it’s siren occasionally making noise. The appropriate response is to:

A) Pull back into your spot, and wait for the ambulance to pass,
B) Stop where you are and let the ambulance attempt to get around you,
C) Turn towards the ambulance, and pull over
D) Quickly merge into the traffic pattern, and try to stay ahead of the ambulance.

In this scenario, which I encountered about two weeks ago, we were responding to a call at a sports complex. We were taking the one way loop around to where our patient had been struck in the head with a home run ball (what luck!). A person backs out of his parking spot, while on his cellphone. He looks right at me, and begins to point his car into oncoming traffic, GOING THE WRONG WAY. After a healthy dose of extra siren and air horn, as well as some pointing in the direction I wanted him to go, the driver pulled his car back into his parking spot and allowed me to pass…which is what he should have done to begin with. He chose C, and then eventually chose A. In a parking lot, if you see (or hear) an ambulance on the move, stay put.

Situation # 2: You are stopped in heavy traffic, near a stoplight. An ambulance is approaching you with lights and sirens. You
A) Honk and wave,
B) Roll your window up, because the siren is too loud
C) Pull to the nearest shoulder of the road
D) See which lane or line (between lanes) the ambulance is in/on, and pull away from that lane/line
E) Stay put, then when the ambulance goes by, get behind it and “follow your blocker”

This is a hard one, and there aren’t too many great answers, but there are lots of bad ones. First of all, don’t ever follow an ambulance with it’s lights on. Not only is it illegal, but it’s dangerous. If I, as a driver, have to make a sudden stop, you’ll never see it coming, and you will have your Prius in the back end of my Freightliner…and I’ll win. As far as “good answers”, the Code of Virginia (where this article is being written) states that you should pull to “the nearest curb”. This means, if you have 3 lanes in a divided highway (Think Route 7 or Route 28 in Loudoun County), if you’re in the left lane, pull left, if you’re in the right lane, pull right. If you’re in the middle lane, uh-oh, you have to think. See where teh ambulance is, and see where you have a gap (left or right), and go there. Look and see what everyone else is doing. You might have to base your response on what someone else is doing. Yes, I’ve seen all of the other responses, above, many times. If you’re a kid, I might wave back. To the dude that rolled up his window so I didn’t interrupt his phone call with my siren instead of getting out of the way, I’ve got a special award for you.

Situation # 3: Your driving along the road, not much traffic. The fire engine that was just driving a bit behind you, perhaps on their way to dinner, all of a sudden “lights it up” behind you, and turns on their siren. You respond by:

A) Stopping. Immediately. Right Now.
B) See where the fire engine is headed, look for a safe spot on the opposite curb, and pull over,
C) Speed up. Your BMW can outrun a fire engine.
D) Pull over. Right Now. Without Looking.
E) Turn on your hazards and wave your arms frantically.
F) Look for the smoke
G) Roll up your window, so you can continue your phone call

I’m hopeful that you can see the correct answer clearly above. It’s B, if you can’t tell….and there may be a few folks who couldn’t because all the other stuff happens. A lot. Yes, we drive around town. We eat, we return from the hospital, sometimes we run errands when were are between calls. Occasionally, we get dispatched “on the road”. If you see us as a fellow motorist, please give us a little wider berth than you might give that Pontiac that just cut you off. We might need to leave in a hurry, and it might be to take care of someone you know.

Situation #4: One of your family members is ill or injured, and needs to be rushed to the hospital. The ambulance is going lights and siren, and you are in your own car. You proceed to the hospital:

A) By following the ambulance as closely as possible, with your hazards on, honking your horn, proceeding through red lights with the ambulance,
B) By following the ambulance as closely as possible proceeding through red lights, with no lights or horn, because that is illegal
C) By leading the ambulance through intersections, all the way to the hospital, like a police escort.
D) By driving to the hospital as you ‘normally’ would, even though you are really concerned and feel you need to get there quickly.

As an EMS provider, my duty lies with caring for my patients, and protecting my patients, crew, and the public from harm. When I have my lights and siren on, that means I can do a few things that you can’t, like proceeding through an intersection with a red light, or going slightly faster than the posted speed limit. The fact that your family member is on board does not give YOU that right in your Privately Owned Vehicle. If you are doing so, and, in my judgment, I feel you are driving dangerously, and are endangering the public, or my crew (for fear you may run into me), I am required to “shut it down” for the greater good. You could actually cause a delay in treatment of your loved one if you follow me to closely. Getting YOU to the hospital so you can spend a few more minutes in the waiting room is not my greatest priority. I will usually remind family members of this before I leave, but I have, on more than one occasion, “shut it down” and pulled over during a transport, to go talk to the driver of the car that was following me, when my patient really needed to be at the hospital.

Finally, if you see emergency vehicles at an accident, please slow down, and keep your eyes in front of you. If you really like seeing the carnage of smashed trucks and mangled bodies, than lots talk about you being a volunteer fire and rescue person. However, we are all now required to wear these ridiculous bright orange vests, by OSHA regulation, because drivers take their eyes off the road, and put it on the accident scene, and then firefighters, EMTs and medics get hit by cars and killed. A couple of years ago, I was working an accident, and three teenage girls, who were friends of the people in the accident (which was minor) jaywalked across the street to check on their friends, without looking. The driver of the car that almost hit them wasn’t looking, either, and slammed on his brakes at the last minute, and was rear ended in a 4 car chain reaction accident…because nobody was paying attention. That driver, in the secondary accident, was the one injured the worst on the whole scene, and it was completely avoidable.

I try to say “use common sense” when it comes to many situations, only to find out that it is not so “common” as I would like. I see a lot of crazy things behind the wheel of my ambulance, including all of the “bogus” answers, above. A lot. I ask that some day in the not-too-distant future, when you’re out in traffic, think about what you would do if an emergency vehicle came along NOW. Be prepared, and you might just help someone without realizing it.

Thank you, in advance, for your consideration.