The squeal of sirens approaching a crowded intersection often sends drivers scurrying in every direction.
Gold Cross ambulance
driver Jason Wiggins often has to avoid automobile
drivers who don't know how to react when they encounter an emergency vehicle with lights and siren going.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Sandra Culver sees it everyday as the senior captain for Gold Cross Emergency Medical Services, which provides ambulance service to Columbia County.
"A lot of them freak out and just stop or they will pull to the left," Culver said. "State law says that we have to pass on the left. And we have got people who will pull out to the left in front of us as we pass them. They try to outrun us, just all kind of crazy things. I don't know whether it is they just don't know any better or they panic."
Those few extra seconds gliding through a cleared intersection could mean the difference between life and death to the person the ambulance is trying to reach or transport to a hospital.
When drivers hear the siren, it can be confusing which way it is coming from because the sound bounces off buildings and other objects, and sometimes the ambulance can outrun its siren, said Capt. Courtenay Williamson, of Gold Cross.
Georgia law requires that drivers yield to emergency vehicles with lights and sirens on by moving as far right as possible, clearing the center of the road for the ambulance, fire truck or police car to pass.
That doesn't always happen.
According to Gold Cross Director Tom Schneider, the ambulance service runs between 400 and 500 calls per month. His drivers are trained to drive defensively and anticipate the unexpected while trying to maintain a nine-minute response time while dealing with weather, location and traffic.
Williamson said she does not plan for just the unexpected.
"We try to anticipate the worse case scenarios," she said.
Williamson has witnessed drivers, who often see the ambulance or another emergency vehicle as an annoyance, hurry to cross an intersection before the ambulance reaches it.
Drivers who don't automatically pull to the right and stop have one of three incorrect reactions, Williamson said. They suddenly stop right in front of the ambulance, causing its driver to slam on the brakes, pull left into a center turn lane or freeze, which she said most elderly drivers do.
The center lane can be dangerous because drivers who pull there usually have lower visibility and trouble merging back into traffic.
The law specifically states that driver must yield the right of way, drive to the far right edge of the curb, clear an intersection and stop.
"(The problem) is not just with ambulances," said Culver, who was once transporting an accident victim when her ambulance was struck by a driver running a red light. "It is fire trucks, too. It is a big problem for both of us."
Martinez Fire Department Chief Doug Cooper agrees that drivers who don't know how to react to emergency vehicles on the road cause delays of valuable time. Firefighters are first responders, so they respond to medical calls and accidents as well as fires.
"We have to be real observant," Cooper said.
While Williamson said ambulances have a lot of power, therefore it takes a lot more distance than a passenger vehicle to stop, Cooper said firefighters have to maneuver trucks up to 47 feet long through heavy traffic.
Columbia County Sheriff's Office deputies don't have as much of a problem with drivers not paying attention or disobeying rules of the road. The difference is, Culver said, that ambulances flash red lights while police cruisers have blue ones, meaning drivers could get ticketed for their actions.
"We have heard a lot of complaints in the past about people wanting to follow the ambulances at high rates of speed," said sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris.
The Columbia County Emergency Management Agency suggests these tips for drivers when an emergency vehicle approaches with its lights and sirens on:
* Remain calm and don't panic.
* Pull to the right and stop.
* When on a high-speed road or where there is no room to stop, slow down as much as possible.
* When in the left lane, pull into the right lane as traffic in the right lane moves over.
* If you cannot move right because of an obstacle such as a car, simply stop. The prompt action will let the driver of the emergency vehicle know what you are doing.
* When an emergency vehicle approaches from behind while you are stationary at an intersection stop sign or red light, do not move unless you can pull to the right.
When an emergency vehicles approaches, drivers should never:
* Stop in the middle lane when there is no room to pull right.
* Pull into the left or center turn lane.
* Drive through a red light or stop sign when the vehicle approaches from behind.
* Turn left quickly into a driveway or street.
* Race ahead to get through a green light or turn before the emergency vehicle gets there.
* Disregard the presence of the emergency vehicle by continuing to drive.
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