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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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Please email us to report offensive comments.

always to the right. that is what i learned and that is what is tick with. i was amazed to see people stop in the middle of the road. regardless of where you learned to drive everyone was taught to PULL OVER not stop in the middle of the road

Posted by: NALL92 | August 13, 2008 10:12 AM

I am always amazed and appalled by the general disregard that drivers in this region display for emergency vehicles. These people are too self-important (a chronic condition in the D.C. area)to yield to fire trucks, etc. The same people, usually BMW and Mercedes drivers, who feel it is more important for them to get to whatever appointment than to yield the right of way to other drivers. The same people who drive on the shoulder, etc. Wait in traffic?! Not them!

Posted by: Mont. Co. | August 13, 2008 10:26 AM

I'm glad that you've written about this. When I was driving, cars were pulling any which way, and I thought that my driver's ed from 35 years ago was out of date. Imagine my surprise when the manual still said pull over to the right edege. From the VA DMV web site,
"τ€€— When police, fire and rescue vehicles or ambulances approach
you using a siren, flashing light or both, you must immediately yield the right-of-way. Pull over to the right edge of the road and stop until the emergency vehicle has passed. Don’t follow any emergency
vehicle any closer than 500 feet.
τ€€— Regardless of your direction, on an
undivided highway, you must pull over to the edge of the road and allow an mergency vehicle to pass.

I always try to pull over to the right, but, since there are loads of idiots driving, I fall back to the lowest common denomenator policy, and follow whichever way the majority of drivers (right or wrong) go so that there is a space for the vehicle.

Posted by: Alice | August 13, 2008 10:27 AM

I used to teach emergency vehicle driving -- except in little towns in New England. I got here and my first thought was that I was glad I was out of the business, because I'd go insane.

As a result, even with the stereo on and the windows up, my ear is already tuned to the sound of sirens, and I know all about sound traveling around corners. I wish there was some way besides experience to teach that!

Posted by: NC2 | August 13, 2008 10:27 AM

I think local gov't need to improve their call systems. Oftentimes it's not just one vehicle that goes to a scene it's 2 or 3 and maybe a cop car.

It's like a race to see who gets there first -- even if they creep along.

Why can't they arrange themselves so only one truck/van goes? Those vehicles are large and hard to maneuver in traffic PLUS they're all gas guzzlers -- and it's wastes the time of about half the personnel involved.

Posted by: roseg | August 13, 2008 10:33 AM

First of all, why do you have lipstick and burritos in your ears?

Second, I guess I hadn't realized how dangerous FOR ME these emergency vehicles are. Here I am, obeying the law and trying to pull to the right across three lanes of traffic. The firetruck driver is expecting me to pull to the left (if I'm in the left lane) or is just trying to "follow the path of openness" which means he's REALLY likely to slam into me as I'm pulling right. More training. More enforcement. (A $100 ticket is a much better teacher than a free, optional class.) That's pretty much the only solution. And not just to this problem.

Posted by: WDC | August 13, 2008 10:48 AM

"Distractions are up - With a cell phone in one ear, 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."

Drivers who put lipstick and burritos in their ears should probably be more concerned about themselves than about the approaching engine truck.

Posted by: Jon | August 13, 2008 10:49 AM

Often times on I66 State Troopers, Fire and Rescue and FCPD use the shoulder. Then WTF do you do?

If they just ban all cell phone use blue tooth or not it would help. And allow vigilante justice anyone caught talking or texting is immediately executed on the side of the road. No appeal. Behind the left or right ear your chocie.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 13, 2008 10:51 AM

What I hate is when you're in the middle of three lanes, second car at a red light, and you can't go anywhere because the driver in front of you is either oblivious or afraid to pull out into the intersection to get out of the way. I understand the legitimate fear that drivers on the other street won't stop if they have a green light and you're trying to clear the way for a fire truck or something, but heck, make a right turn if you have to and go around the block.

The worst thing I ever saw was in Fairfax City a while back. A fire truck had taken to the left side of the road to get around stopped traffic. Traffic coming towards the fire truck had stopped (they had a green light) to let him through. Some idiot on the other street made a right on red directly into the path of the fire truck. Amazing that there wasn't an accident.

Posted by: Rich | August 13, 2008 10:58 AM

Um, shouldn't it be "brakes" not "breaks"?

Posted by: Shawn | August 13, 2008 11:22 AM

roseg: Emergency vehicles often need more than 1 to respond due to the emergency. Each truck can only do so many things. Often more trucks are needed to shield the responders from traffic. For example, if there is a traffic accident, 2 vehicles can respond because 1 will be looking out for human life and can immediately transport if someone needs hospital care. The other will also be looking out for human life, but can provide care on site in addition to checking the vehicles for leaking fluids that could cause a fire or other hazards that come from cars. Then a police officer is needed for the witness reports and other records, so that brings in a 3rd vehicle.

Posted by: J | August 13, 2008 11:22 AM

Sorry about the burritos in the ears folks. I got my body parts confused, and not for the first time. Have fixed.

Posted by: Steve Hendrix | August 13, 2008 1:56 PM

I got my body parts confused, and not for the first time.
Posted by: Steve Hendrix | August 13, 2008 1:56 PM

Hmm, I bet your wife was surprised...

Posted by: Anonymous | August 13, 2008 2:28 PM

Isn't it illegal to go through a red light to make way for emergency vehicles?

Posted by: Philly | August 13, 2008 2:39 PM

When is Fisher coming back, anyhow? PLEASE COME BACK SOON.

Posted by: Harry | August 13, 2008 3:45 PM

I like Steve's take on things. He deals with the small things in life, while Marc is more on area-wide politics. My only thing, Steve, use the spell-checker to avoid the merciless peanut gallery.

BTW Anonymous, I use a bluetooth headset when driving (granted I'm not perennially on the phone, only when an emergency and five minutes or less) and I always bear right when I hear a siren and see the flashing lights.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 13, 2008 5:46 PM

Sorry Blue tooth user you cant give your full time and attention to driving if you are talking on your cell blur tooth or not.

Summary execution is the only answer.

And another problem with local FD and LE's is the use of emergency lights to get hrough traffic to pick up dinner.

And then there are the Feds from various Federal agencies who use the GOVs with lights flashing to get through traffic.
Sorry there is no reason for the marked NIH police car to turn on his lights on I 66 in the area of Nutley. He has no jurisdiction of the NIH reservation. Same holds true for US Capitol and WNY cops.
Just watch out for the US Park Police they can write you a ticket anywehre. Others cant.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 14, 2008 6:27 AM

I hear Marc isnt coming back and Steve is taking over the blog, column and chat. Nice to see the dog hating leftist socialist Marc on the street and unemployed! No we dont want a good bye column, Marc!

Posted by: Anonymous | August 14, 2008 9:00 AM

How does Steve really feel about dogs though?

Posted by: Robin | August 14, 2008 12:40 PM

Maybe Steve has a taco up his arse and thus can't focus. Thank God the online version is free.

Posted by: Not paying | August 14, 2008 8:35 PM

The major problem I observed in Baltimore with making way for emergency vehicles was the congestion. There was often just nowhere to move. If there was a red light, cars at the front of the line were afraid to move forward into the intersection for fear of getting T-boned by crossing vehicles that have a green light. Can't say I blame them.
Also, I think pulling over to the side of the road doesn't always make sense if you are way ahead of the emergency vehicle and there are multiple cars around. If you pull over, you will use up "free" spaces on the shoulder that will prevent the cars immediately in front of the emergency vehicle from pulling over.
Also I observe some drivers are afraid to pull over because cars BEHIND the emergency vehicle do not allow them back onto the road but just keep speeding by at top speed and creating a dangerous re-entry for the person who was considerate enough to pull over and make space for the emergency vehicle.

Posted by: middle70 | August 19, 2008 10:38 AM

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