Distracted driving policy for ambulance operations

Use a distracted driving policy to educate personnel on the risks of distracted driving and to set clear expectations for in-vehicle behavior

Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of occupational fatalities in the U.S., according to the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety [1]. In addition to the traumatic loss of life and potential civil and criminal liability that can be associated with work-related vehicle crashes, they can also be costly for the employer.

The average (property damage only) on-the-job crash costs an employer about $16,500. Crashes involving injuries cost substantially more; on average $504,408 for a fatal injury and $73,750 for a nonfatal injury. Add to those costs the fact that crashes involving an ambulance tend to be newsworthy, and it’s clear your agency should act to reduce the potential for crashes.

Distracted driving

Every EMS agency needs a distracted driver policy for ambulance operations
Every EMS agency needs a distracted driver policy for ambulance operations (Photo/Greg Friese)

A leading cause of motor vehicle crashes is distracted driving. While we typically associate distracted driving with cellphone use, it can be the result of many other factors as well. Distracted driving occurs any time the driver takes their eyes off the road, hands off the wheel or concentrates on something other than driving. Any type of distraction can increase the risk of a crash.

It is essential that anyone who gets behind the wheel of an ambulance understands the risk associated with distracted driving and knows how to avoid becoming a distracted driver. A distracted driving policy, along with training, can help reduce the risk of crashes due to distracted driving. The policy should make it clear that distracted driving is not tolerated by your agency. 

Sterile cockpit

When formulating your policy, consider using the "sterile cockpit" rule from the airline industry as a model. Federal aviation rules prohibit cockpit activities not related to safe flight operation during critical phases of flight. Activities such as eating, nonessential conversation between crew members or other personnel, reading the newspaper are forbidden. This rule serves to eliminate any unnecessary risks created from the pilot’s attention being diverted from the important task of flying the airplane.

Anytime an EMS provider is behind the wheel of an ambulance it should be treated as a "critical phase" of operations. Whether the crew is en route to pick up an ill or injured patient, transporting a patient, or driving back to the station before taking the next call, the driver of the ambulance should be focused only on the task at hand – driving safely.

Your policy should also include what is expected of crew members who are not driving the ambulance. A crew member who is not driving or providing patient care should serve as an extra set of eyes on the road and should not do anything that would distract the driver. The crew member who is not driving should assist with navigation, contact dispatch or medical control when needed, and generally be aware of driving conditions to assist the driver.

8 Distracted driving policy provisions

Vital provisions of a distracted driving policy include:

  1. Restricting the use of a smartphone, even when hands-free, for any reason by the driver of an ambulance except when it is an emergency and another crew member is not able to assist.
  2. Prohibiting the use of a hand-held cellphone while operating an ambulance – whether the ambulance is in motion or stopped at a traffic light – including, but not limited to, answering or making phone calls, engaging in phone conversations, browsing the Internet, posting social media updates and reading or responding to emails, instant messages and text messages.
  3. Prohibiting all staff members, even those not driving, from using cellphones for any reason not related to EMS operations while in the ambulance.
  4. Restricting conversation between crew members to only operational tasks during a patient transport and whenever the vehicle is in emergency response mode.
  5. Prohibiting the driver of the ambulance from using the radio unless another crew member is unable to operate the radio and it will not cause the driver to become distracted.
  6. Prohibiting the use of earpieces or headphones, except an employer-provided radio headset, while driving the ambulance.
  7. Requiring the GPS, whether onboard the ambulance or on a smartphone, to be set before the vehicle is in motion and for the driver to safely pull over to the side of the road if changes need to be made en route.
  8. Requiring the use of steering wheel mounted siren controls when possible so that the driver’s hands can remain on the wheel.

These provisions may need adaptation to your local deployment strategy, such as posting personnel in ambulances away from a station. In addition, consider the cockpit design, including availability of hands-free radio headsets and placement of the mobile data terminal, to reduce opportunities for driver distraction. 

The policy cannot be successfully implemented if it is not enforced through discipline and recognition of compliance. The consequences should be clear and consistent with other policies related to staff conduct and should be enforced for all personnel.


1. 10 facts employers must know. TrafficSafety.org. (August 13, 2015) 

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