Most states have laws requiring motorists to move over or slow down when approaching an emergency or public safety vehicle. But too many drivers fail to follow the law.
Firefighters and EMT’s face many risks on the job, not the least of which is navigating traffic gridlock and busy intersections while responding to calls.
Over 20 years, there were roughly 4,500 accidents involving emergency vehicles each year, according to a 2014 National Highway Safety Traffic Administration report. About 35 percent of those accidents resulted in injuries or fatalities, the report said.
Emergency vehicle crashes occur most often due to civilian drivers who fail to yield at intersections, according to the U.S. Fire Administration Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative.
But, some intersection collisions are the emergency vehicle driver’s fault.
“Too often, emergency vehicles proceed through negative rights-of-way without stopping, and, in some cases, barely slowing down,” the vehicle safety initiative said.
Speed is another leading cause of emergency vehicle accidents, although it does little to get there faster.
“At a constant speed, the difference between 40 mph and 50 mph on a two-mile response is only about 25 seconds,” the safety initiative said. “Improving dispatch handling times, station turnout times and other factors will contribute more to decreasing response time than increasing the speed of the apparatus.”
The safety initiative offers many recommendations for drivers of emergency vehicles. Here are some of them:
- Never enter an intersection without coming to a stop and determining that other drivers see your vehicle and will allow it to proceed.
- Use great caution entering the opposing lane of traffic at an intersection: Go slowly, use all warning devices and make sure oncoming traffic can see you.
- Develop and enforce maximum speed policies for all types of vehicles, conditions and situations. Allow a riding company officer or superior to demand that drivers slow down.
- Drifting off the right side of the road leads to many accidents. Avoid passing slowed or stopped vehicles on the right and distractions that allow the vehicle to drift.
- Only enter opposing lanes of traffic to pass vehicles if no safer option exists. Never do this on a roadway curve or where a vehicle may turn onto the road and into your path.
- Every vehicle has different handling characteristics, blind spots and sight lines. Drivers with insufficient training should not operate vehicles in emergencies.
- Refrain from reading maps or using mobile devices while driving.
- Fatigue impairs drivers because it lowers visual efficiency and slows reaction time. Don’t drive unless you’ve gotten enough sleep.
In January 2019, seven people, including two EMT’s, were sent to the hospital after a concrete truck crashed into the back of an ambulance in Louisville, Ky.
The two EMTs suffered head injuries. They had just calmed a patient and secured her on the stretcher when the truck smashed into their ambulance.
The force of the crash was so powerful that it sheered the rig in half. Two cars and an 18-wheeler also collided with the wreckage.
The truck driver failed to follow the Kentucky law to use caution when approaching an emergency vehicle, causing the crash.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offers a 7-part video series on crash test methods to improve worker and patient safety. The series shows that:
- Seat belts worn by EMS workers in the patient compartment can save lives. Upper torso restraints can increase safety by reducing head travel and body slide during a crash.
- It’s crucial that cots are held to the ambulance floor and patients are properly restrained. Improvements in cots, cot mount design, and patient restraint can improve patient and worker safety.
- Loose, flying equipment, such as oxygen cylinders, heart monitors or fire extinguishers, pose many hazards to workers and patients. New crash test methods support safe mounting and storage of equipment.
- Patient compartment strength is key to worker and patient safety during a crash, particularly roof strength and floor support for the patient cot.
What time of day do most ambulance crashes happen? (March 2017) Retrieved from https://www.jems.com/na/ferno/what-time-of-day-do-most-ambulance-crash.html
EMS officials Say Patient Tried to Climb Out of Ambulance Before Violent I-264 Crash. (2019) Retrieved from https://www.wdrb.com/news/ems-officials-say-patient-tried-to-climb-out-of-ambulance/article_f25791aa-1385-11e9-b9aa-c3126315265c.html
NHTSA Advances Ground Ambulance Safety by Tracking and Investigating Crashes. (March/April 2015) Retrieved from https://www.ems.gov/newsletter/marapr2015/ground-ambulance-safety.html
U.S. Fire Administration Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative (February 2014) Retrieved from https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/fa_336.pdf