Traffic 101: Here Comes a Fire Truck - What Do YOU Do?
(Posted by guest blogger Steve Hendrix) I was on North Capitol Street in Northwest last week when a fire truck came hurtling southbound. Well, hurtling is not the right world. Creeping is more like it. Inching, really. The civilian cars went into such a Keystone Cops ballet, sprawling across both lanes, that by the time the engine picked its way to the scene the fire was probably out and the owners already spending the insurance money in Florida.
What do you do when a ambulance or fire truck comes barreling along, all sound and flash and urgency? If you're like a lot of drivers around here, you freeze in the middle of the lane. Or you ignore it. Or you race it. Or you pull to the wrong side of the street. Or you miss it entirely in your cocoon of AC blast and Blaupunkt bass. What you probably don't do is pull calmly to the right and clear the widest possible path for the first responders to get where they are going, they way they used to do every week on Adam-12. As a society, we don't do emergency vehicles so good since the end of the black-and-white era.
"I think people just don't know what to do any more," said Pete Piringer, spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire Department. "There's no question that the most dangerous part of most emergency calls these days is getting there." (See the jump for a primer on the emergency vehicle traffic laws in Maryland, DC and Virginia).
This is a big deal for fire and police departments. The confusion hurts response times and fully 25 percent of fire fighter fatalities are as a result of traffic accidents, according to Montgomery Division Chief Richie Bowers. He and Piringer, along with Station Capt. Jerry Warren gathered in Rockville last week to count the ways that clearing a path on Washington area roadways has become more difficult in recent years:
Windows are up - AC in every car and fantastic entertainment centers mean that more drivers glass themselves off from the world.
Congestion is up - No news there, but the choked roads make it harder for drivers to find a clear space when the sirens go off.
Distractions are up - With a cell phone in one hand, a lipstick tube in the other and a breakfast burrito in the third, noticing the 34,000-pound engine truck growing large in your rearview mirror is a low priority.
Emergency calls are up - First responders are busier than ever in this region, making sirens a pretty constant feature of the landscape. And paradoxically easier to ignore. "People get desensitized to it," said Warren, one of the department officers charged with keeping fire fighters safe on the job (and, increasingly, on the way to the job).
Confusion is up - Drivers in this transient area, who come from every state and all over the globe, may cross three jurisdictions on a single driving errand, with slightly different laws governing the roads of Maryland, the District and Virginia. That means that even when people do hear the sirens they don't always know what to do. "I've seen people drive up over the median, damaging their cars," said Warren. "I've seen them take down street signs. I've seen them get stuck in snow banks." None of that is necessary, he said. "If they would just put on a turn signal to tell us which way they are going and keep clear of intersections, we can do the rest."
Training is down - Driver training courses and driver's licensing exams seem to put less emphasis on responding to emergency vehicles than they used to, these professionals say. "I don't think there enough emphasis on what to do when we're coming down the road," said Bowers.
In Montgomery County, they have done two things to adjust to the less-forgiving conditions. First, they have dramatically increased the level of defensive driver training they give to each ambulance, fire truck and police cruiser operator. "We've change our driving culture dramatically," said Warren. "It used to be all gas, all break."
Second, the county has instituted a public education program, which they have shared around the region and the country, called "See Us, Hear Us, Clear for Us," which basically comes down to a bunch of common sense pleas to keep the volume low, look out for emergency vehicles and get out of there way when they come down the road. In Maryland, that means pull to the closest "edge of the roadway." In most cases, that would be to the right. But if there's a concrete median in the center of the road, you might well snug up to the left.
More important than where you go, says Warren, is letting the emergency vehicle know that you've seen it and which way you're going to move. That means tapping the brakes and flipping on a turn signal. "Just let us know you see us," he said.
Here are the different street laws regarding emergency vehicles in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. Be alert; they're not identical.
Maryland: Move the closest road edge, usually right unless you're in the left lane of a divided highway. Don't simply stop in the middle of the road. "I've seen people come to a complete stop in the fast lane of the Beltway," said Piringer.
Virginia: "Vehicles need to pull to the nearest shoulder of the road," according to Fairfax County Fire Department Spokesman Dan Schmidt. "You can go to the left or right, depending on where you are on the road and where other vehicle are. It's almost like a herring bone move, you pull left or right to the shoulder and hopefully a path in the middle is created." Fairfax has adopted a zen-like approach to training its emergency drivers: "We've retrained them to follow the path of openness."
The District: D.C. still expects driver to pull to the right side of the road. "Pull to the right and stop," said D.C. Fire Department Spokesman Alan Etter. "Keep that left lane open. We train our apparatus drivers to go to the left."
By Steve Hendrix |
August 13, 2008; 9:30 AM ET
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