Emergency Vehicles and the Move Over Law

As a hearing child of deaf parents, one of my earliest jobs as a toddler was to alert my parents if I heard a siren anywhere in the vicinity so they could be on the lookout and get out of the way of an emergency vehicle. It was my earliest lesson in safe driving.

Deaf drivers, aware of their inability to hear, tend to be very watchful for the lights of emergency vehicles so they can get out of their way. Hearing drivers however tend to depend on their hearing but that doesn’t always work to their advantage. They get into the car, roll up the windows, turn on the air conditioner, crank up the volume on the car stereo and are now just as deaf to the very important audible signals outside the car as my parents were. The problem comes when, depending on their hearing and not checking their rear view mirrors, these drivers are unaware of approaching emergency vehicles until the last second. In an emergency situation, seconds count, and delays caused by distracted drivers can mean the difference between life and death for someone in a medical emergency.

Some emergency responder agencies have reacted to this problem by installing a new device called the Rumbler which actually vibrates the cars ahead using short bursts of low frequency sound waves. It is similar to but more intense and more focused than the loud bass in a car stereo. In the future, if your car starts to rumble, instead of blaming the annoying noise on a car stereo, you should be checking for the approach of an emergency vehicle. In addition to the Rumbler, they are also adding louder sirens.

Another device used by first responders preempts the traffic light; turning every traffic light in their path green. Drivers should be aware, if a light seems to suddenly turn red in a shorter amount of time than usual, that it may have been preempted by an emergency vehicle. This is not the time to try to beat the light.

Rush hour traffic causes special problems for emergency responders. A TV news magazine show aired a story several years ago about a four year old girl who was suffering a severe asthma attack. The ambulance transporting her to the hospital was delayed because rush hour drivers, afraid of further delays, refused to move out of the way and the little girl died on the way to the hospital. Rush hour is a pain but momentarily giving up your spot in rush hour traffic may save a life.

So, what should you do if you are confronted by an emergency vehicle on the road? Pull over and stop! Get out of the way of the emergency vehicle and give it a clear path. If you are in an intersection, clear the intersection before moving over and stopping. Once an emergency vehicle has passed, don’t follow any closer than 500 feet. You never know if it may need to stop suddenly or make a turn into a driveway. If you are in the opposite lane of a divided roadway, remember that the emergency vehicle may turn left in front of you. Even if you are in the opposite lane, slow until you are sure the emergency vehicle is going to pass you.

Move Over Law

An average of one emergency worker per month is killed along the side of the road by drivers who fail to slow or get out of the way. Sometimes drivers are so focused on looking at the incident on the side of the road that they fail to watch the road ahead and, as a result, become a part of the incident scene themselves.

More than forty states have now passed some form of a “Move Over” law. These laws require drivers approaching an emergency vehicle with its lights flashing to move over into the lane opposite the emergency vehicle. If there is no other lane or you can’t move over because of traffic, then you must slow down. Some states require that you slow down by a specified amount. Florida, for instance requires that drivers who can’t move over slow to 20 mph under the posted speed limit when passing an emergency vehicle.

Surprisingly, even though these laws have been around for many years in some states, very few drivers are aware of them. According to a poll sponsored by the National Safety Commission, 71 percent of Americans have not heard of Move Over laws. The same poll showed that 86 percent supported such laws in all 50 states and 90 percent believed that roadside emergencies are dangerous for law enforcement and first responders.

When dealing with emergency vehicles it might help drivers if they start to consider every emergency vehicle as responding to someone they love and care about. Drivers should also, in the words of one Virginia sheriff, “help protect the people who protect you” and follow the Move Over law even if it hasn’t been enacted in your state.