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Do lights and sirens make an already distracted driver more dangerous?

An ambulance and vehicle collision immediately transforms an incident from the patient’s emergency to an emergency shared with the EMS crew


Most drivers are too distracted to realize an ambulance is nearby or approaching.

Photo/Greg Friese

Paramedics, firefighters and police officers are regularly injured by vehicles that fail to yield the right of way during a red lights and sirens response or transport. Injuries range from not serious to critical to life-threatening to fatal. And we all know that any non-life threatening neck and back injury can easily become a career-threatening injury for any EMS professional.

Far too often we share news reports of ambulances involved in collisions while running red lights and sirens. Honestly, I am surprised these collisions don’t happen more often.

Distracted drivers

Motor vehicle drivers are increasingly distracted by text messages, emails, and phone calls. At any given moment, more than half-a-million drivers are using a smartphone or electronic device - held to their ear or in hands-free mode - while driving.[1]

Add to that number the drivers distracted by the occupants of their vehicle, drivers attempting to eat or apply cosmetics, drivers changing radio and climate controls, and drivers engrossed in all manner of other distractions. Many emergency vehicle operators, of course, are also distracted by the devices - smartphones, mobile data terminals, and radios - within their reach and view.

Moving over is not easy

Many civilians don’t know what to do when an emergency vehicle approaches. It is no surprise that the Tuscaloosa “Pull to the Right” videos have been viral successes. What seems so easy - pulling to the right - eludes many drivers because of the stress and inexperience of decelerating rapidly from highway speeds to the side of the road.

Even trying to do the right thing can result in a collision. A well-intentioned Ky. driver decelerated, but there was no shoulder on the right so she turned left towards a driveway and into the path of the ambulance attempting to pass her on the left.

Little to no warning

The modern vehicle passenger compartment is a cocoon of safety and noise reduction. Drivers are insulated from the noise of the world around them, including emergency vehicle sirens. Vehicle construction, noise canceling earbuds, and smartphone use give drivers only a few seconds of warning of an approaching motor vehicle.

Collision makes it our emergency

An ambulance and vehicle collision immediately transforms an incident from the patient’s emergency to an emergency shared with the EMS crew. And to what benefit?

The driver of a Pa. ambulance and the driver of the SUV that struck the ambulance were both injured when the ambulance proceeded through a red light one block from the hospital.

My wish for safe transport

Sure, some percentage of patients benefit from red lights and sirens transport. Do you know what percentage of patients in your system benefit? I suspect the percentage is far too low to make the benefit worth the risk.

What if it was my kid or parent in that ambulance? My desire is that my loved ones reach their destination without the delay of a collision and injury or permanent disability to the EMS professionals providing care. That’s my wish.

This article, originally published May 26, 2015, has been updated


1. NHTSA Survey Finds 660,000 Drivers Using Cell Phones or Manipulating Electronic Devices While Driving At Any Given Daylight Moment

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on Police1, FireRescue1, Corrections1 and EMS1. Greg served as the EMS1 editor-in-chief for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, national registry paramedic since 2005, and a long-distance runner. Greg was a 2010 recipient of the EMS 10 Award for innovation. He is also a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and the 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Connect with Greg on LinkedIn.