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Published on January 14, 2020

What to do when you see an ambulance?

Ambulance Laws

Let’s say you’re driving down Yarmouth Road toward Hyannis and an ambulance comes up behind you or towards you. What does state law say you are required to do? Oh, did we mention your answer could be a matter of life or death?

Your choices:

a) Immediately come to a full stop.

b) Pull over as far as you can to the right side of the road then stop.

c) Stay in your lane but slow down to less than 20 mph.

d) Keep driving fast enough to stay ahead of it.

If you answered anything but (b), you need to review your driving lessons. State law is very clear: If you see an emergency vehicle coming from either direction, you are required to pull over to the right as best you can to make way. The penalty ranges from a $50 fine for a first offense to a year in prison and license suspension for subsequent offenses. And worse, you may not be risking not only your life, but that of the emergency crew, other drivers, and, of course, the patient.

“I think the hardest part about driving an ambulance is being in a situation where time may equal greater survival chances or potentially better medical outcomes,” said Jacob G. Crowell, MD, who has been an emergency physician at Cape Cod Hospital for six years and a member of the Dennis Fire Department as an EMT and/or doctor for 18 years.

Ambulance drivers receive training from their departments, which could include defensive driving strategies and simulator training, he said. However, Dr. Crowell describes his years of being a paramedic and driving an ambulance as a “white knuckle” experience. The driver of an ambulance, he said, is barraged by incoming information that demands attention: the condition of the patient and what’s happening with treatment, road and weather conditions, control of the lights and siren, the chatter from two or three radios, the emotional status of a family member riding in the passenger seat, and the actions of other drivers.

While it might seem like the ambulance is speeding down the road, in most cases, drivers aren’t exceeding the speed limit, he said.

“The mantra that most ambulance drivers live by is that the patient is going to do awful if there is in fact a crash. While certain situations may ultimately push a driver to exceed the speed limit, [usually] safely delivering the patient to the hospital trumps any time you can save by a little extra speed.”

Both Dr. Crowell and John Adelizzi, the emergency services medical coordinator for the town of Dennis, said most Cape drivers are respectful to ambulances and pull over to the right. But all drivers are more distracted these days, Adelizzi said, and that’s a problem.

“People aren’t concentrating on driving the way they were in the past,” he said. “Whether it’s electronic data or cell phones, or even the radio cranked up, they may not hear or see us.”

Stay Off Their Tail

Then there are the drivers who try to take advantage of systems easing the way for emergency vehicles, such as the Opticom technology that changes the lights to green when an ambulance approaches an intersection.

“People will sometimes hook in behind us just to get on the green light and that’s nothing more than impatience,” Adelizzi said.

Following an ambulance closely through an intersection is one of the most dangerous things other drivers can do, Dr. Crowell said.

“Every driver who pulls over is expecting to see one emergency vehicle come through, not looking for anybody else coming,” he said. “We know that from the standpoint of two tandem emergency vehicles -- trucks traveling with lights and sirens on, that the second vehicle is at a very increased risk of crashing. So now you put a vehicle behind an ambulance that has no lights or siren. They are at huge risk of an accident.”

That’s true even for family members who are following an ambulance to the hospital, Adelizzi said.

“We really instruct them not to do that simply because it’s not a safe thing to do. We tell people, go at your own pace.”

And here’s the bottom line with being respectful of ambulances and other emergency vehicles: The life you save might be someone you love. As Dr. Crowell put it, “If you or your family member were in the back of that ambulance, I think you would want everyone and their mother yielding for it.”