You’re driving along and trying to sound out some ’80s lyrics when you hear the wailing sirens. What do you do? Panic and swerve isn’t the right answer, although it is an understandable reflex. We’ll explain how to safely share the road with ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars.
Avoiding accidents with emergency vehicles
Because emergency vehicles don’t have the time to obey traffic rules like the rest of us, their need to get somewhere fast can put you in a dicey position. And the danger works both ways: In 2010 (and in the 13 years prior), traffic accidents were the leading cause of law enforcement fatalities.
Drivers of the emergency vehicles are also obligated to drive as safely as possible. The New York state government, for one, requires its emergency medical response drivers to “drive with due regard and the safety of all persons and property.” So the onus isn’t entirely on you.
Depending on the scenario, there are ways to cooperate with drivers of emergency vehicles and reduce the risk of an accident when you see those flashing lights.
The one thing to remember: Right-of-way
This likely goes without saying, but emergency vehicles trump all others when it comes to right-of-way. When the siren is blaring and the lights are flashing, green lights, yield signs, and carefully rehearsed roundabout etiquette take a back seat to any police car, fire truck, or ambulance.
When the siren approaches from behind you
The first thing to do is slow down and check on the traffic around you. Avoid the knee-jerk instinct to pull over immediately — there could be another car, a cyclist, or a pedestrian.
Once you spot a clear path to the shoulder, flip on your blinker or your hazard lights and make your way over to the right. Wait to make sure the coast is clear before you pull back into traffic.
When the siren approaches from the front
It can be tricky to know what to do when an emergency response vehicle approaches from the oncoming lane. In general, you still want to pull to the side of the road and flip your hazards on.
Another good reason to pull over: police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances will sometimes drive on the wrong side of the road if the traffic is too dense in their lanes. Pulling onto the shoulder essentially frees your lane for the emergency responders.
Approaching a stopped emergency vehicle: the “Move Over” law
This is where emergency responders are most at risk.
States have different laws on how to drive around a stopped emergency vehicle that has its lights flashing, but the gist is typically the same. Move over — away from the emergency personnel or tow truck operators.
When it isn’t possible to move over, slow down to a safe speed and pass with a whole lot of caution. Other drivers will take your lead, and together you’ll reduce the risk of a tragic accident.
Most states have official move-over laws in place. In Texas, a driver needs to change lanes or slow to 20 mph below the speed limit when approaching a stopped emergency vehicle. If the speed limit is 25 or below, drivers need to slow down to 5 mph. The state may fine offending drivers up to $200 (or more if property damage or injury results from the violation). West Virginia and Michigan may punish a move-over violation with jail time.
So the best thing to do is — you guessed it — move over.
When following any emergency vehicle with flashing lights you’re generally expected to stay about 300–500 feet behind it. Some states have a law stating minimum following distance. It’s always dangerous to tailgate an emergency vehicle.
Helping the helpers and staying out of harm’s way
An emergency responder’s job is not an easy one. We can help by understanding the official and unspoken rules of the road — slow down, pull over when it’s safe, and stay alert.
Understanding how to share the road with ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks adds one more safe-driving feather to your cap.