4 lights and sirens safety tips

Prevent an ambulance crash: Michael Fraley reviews due regard, distracted driving and clearing an intersection

An EMS provider in Virginia was recently found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after being the driver of an ambulance involved in a crash that left one person dead and another critically injured. In the 2018 incident, the ambulance struck a car after going through an intersection against the signal light and without the siren activated. State trooper records indicated that the ambulance was traveling almost 20 miles per hour over the posted speed limit just before the impact.

The EMS provider was recently found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, reckless driving and running a red light. Sentencing has been set for May.

Top takeaways on safe ambulance operation

Driving emergency vehicles is very serious business and we are held liable for our actions. The public expects us to operate professionally and safely.
Driving emergency vehicles is very serious business and we are held liable for our actions. The public expects us to operate professionally and safely. (Texas Department of Public Safety via AP)

Driving emergency vehicles is very serious business and we are held liable for our actions. The public expects us to operate professionally and safely. Anytime I am working with a new partner, I like to remind them of a few points about driving with red lights and sirens that sometimes get forgotten:

1. Red lights and sirens are not a license to punch it

The purpose of red lights and sirens is not just to allow us to drive faster than the posted speed limit. The core intent of using lights and sirens on an emergency vehicle is to increase our visibility and to ask other drivers for the right of way so that we can continue to our destination while minimizing the number of times we have to slow down for other vehicles on the roadway.

Yes, in many places, drivers can be issued a citation for failure to yield, but a ticket after the fact does not really help us during the call. Think of red lights and sirens being used to keep you off the brakes, not to give you the right to punch the accelerator pedal. Also keep in mind that if you are driving too quickly, the other vehicles may not have time to yield and pull over or they may panic and react in a way that doesn’t help clear your path.

2. Take extra caution in intersections, watch for distracted drivers

Intersections are the most dangerous place we drive. It’s simple, that’s where all the traffic comes together. Guess where most airplane crashes occur? Yep, around airports. Extra caution must be taken when approaching an intersection, especially if there is a stop sign or the traffic signal is not in your favor.

There are also as many distractions to drivers inside and outside of their car as there are visual blind spots. If the signal is red in your direction, stop before entering the intersection and then crawl through it lane by lane. Other drivers do not expect vehicles to be coming through when they have the green light and they won’t be looking for you.

3. Running hot risks a rollover crash

I have been to many EMS conferences and stopped at countless ambulance manufacturer booths and I don’t think I have ever had one of their sales representatives tell me that their units run hot better than others. They build them to be safe, but I don’t know of any that modify the units to go faster, turn more sharply or stop on a dime.

They don’t have the “pursuit packages” that our law enforcement colleagues have in their patrol vehicles. Also keep in mind the high center of gravity that our ambulances tend to have. Roll-over crashes are unfortunately common.

4. Drive with due regard in the ambulance

Last, but far from least, is the concept of due regard. Most, if not all, states have some form of due regard language in their rules of the road. Each law has its own specifics, but the common test is to ask if another reasonable person, with similar training and in a similar situation would have performed the task(s) in a similar manner. Putting it differently, would a jury of your peers think that you were being a cowboy?

Due regard clauses are key because the laws and statutes simply cannot predict and prescribe all the details of a traffic scenario such as:

  • What were the posted speed limits?
  • How much traffic was there?
  • What were the road conditions?
  • Were there pedestrians in the area?
  • Was it dark?

Driving with due regard means that you are considering everything going on around you and not getting tunnel vision on the call to which you are responding.

It is tough enough to see so ambulance crashes, much less learning that the EMS provider was charged with some sort of a crime. Let’s all make it a priority to drive to and from the calls as professionally and safely as we approach patient care.

Stay safe out there.

Read next: How to avoid, survive an ambulance collision

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