When an ambulance appears on the road, it is essential that both the ambulance driver and others in traffic adhere to laws of the road to ensure the safety of everyone. Although it may seem unusual, accidents involving ambulances can and do occur, even when they are transporting patients in emergency situations—those people they have pledged to protect and help. When driving near emergency vehicles, several safety practices should be considered to avoid injury.
Just as automobile drivers have to follow laws and regulations to become licensed to drive, ambulance drivers also have certain traffic laws that they must obey before being allowed to drive these vehicles. This is because ambulance drivers are literally taking a person’s life into their own hands when they drive an emergency vehicle and are called to uphold the highest levels of safety. Further, a person who has been trained to work as an emergency medical technician (EMT) is not necessarily qualified to drive an ambulance without first undergoing testing.
If an ambulance is transporting a patient and there is a true emergency, it is allowed to drive in a manner that may be considered “breaking the rules” of traffic. Some of these maneuvers may involve speeding, weaving through traffic, passing on inside lanes or the shoulder of the road, driving the opposite direction down a one-way street, and going through red lights at intersections. The exact rules of driving maneuvers for emergency purposes vary between cities and states.
Despite being able to drive in these ways for emergency calls, ambulance drivers must carefully consider their actions to determine if some maneuvers are necessary or helpful for the patient. Frequently changing lanes may be permissible to get through heavy traffic, but cutting off other vehicles is not necessarily safe. Ambulance drivers, while being exempt from some standard traffic laws, must still approach certain situations with extreme care, always being aware of the potential for other drivers to change or move unexpectedly. For example, when approaching an intersection with a red light, an ambulance driver may have the right of way to pass through while on an emergency call. For safety purposes, he should slow down to ensure that there are no cars approaching from the sides, even if it appears that all traffic has stopped. Slowing down and looking around ensures the safety of the ambulance personnel, the patient inside, and other drivers on the road.
Using lights and sirens is important if the case is an emergency and the driver needs to notify other vehicles to get out of the way. In some places, though, ambulance drivers are still not allowed to pass right through, even if they are on an emergency call. Some examples of these situations may be when approaching a school bus that has the stop sign out and is letting children off, or when approaching a railroad track and the crossing arms have been lowered.
For automobile drivers who encounter an emergency vehicle, the lights and sirens may not be noticeable until the ambulance is close behind. If you are driving in traffic and notice an ambulance approaching, whether from behind or coming from the opposite direction, slow down and pull over to the right side of the road until the vehicle has passed. Even if you believe that the ambulance will not come near you, you should pull over and give it the right of way. You cannot know if an ambulance will need to turn or move through a lane that is in your vicinity. Additionally, do not follow ambulances in an attempt to find out where they are going. In many places, this practice is against the law and can be dangerous if you try to keep up with traffic maneuvers and high speeds.
In order to ensure the safety of everyone on the road, all drivers, including ambulance drivers and those in traffic, should obey safety laws and regulations for their vehicles and licenses. This will help an emergency vehicle tend to its first priority: helping patients who are in need.
Browner, B.D., et al. [Ed.]. (1999). Emergency care and transportation of the sick and injured. Seventh edition. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers