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Paramedics from Toronto Emergency Medical Service carry a patient from a collision at Pape Avenue and O'Connor Street on Dec.19, 2011. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Paramedics from Toronto Emergency Medical Service carry a patient from a collision at Pape Avenue and O'Connor Street on Dec.19, 2011. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

ROAD SAGE

What not to do when you see flashing ambulance lights Add to ...

I first encountered ambulance chasing in New York. I’m not referring to lawyers looking for clients among the newly injured. I’m talking about the automotive version, the practice of using ambulances that are on call as a means to beat traffic. I was in a cab driving through evening traffic when an ambulance, with lights flashing and sirens blaring, appeared behind us. The cabbie slowed and moved to the side and the ambulance shot past us. It seemed like standard driving protocol. But, just as soon as the ambulance passed, the taxi driver swerved right behind it and accelerated. He bird-dogged the ambulance for about 10 blocks as we cruised through lights and whizzed past other cars. I felt like the president in a motorcade.

Needless to say this ran contrary to accepted procedure. In Ontario, for instance, when an emergency vehicle (ambulance, fire engine, paramedic) on call is approaching, you must bring your vehicle to an immediate stop as near as possible to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway. On a divided highway, you move to the closest curb or edge of the roadway, keeping parallel and clear of intersections, including highway ramps.

At the time, I chalked up the aggressive driving tactic to New York; after all, it’s a town in a rush. Recently, however, I’ve noticed more and more ambulance chasing. Some drivers seem to see emergency vehicles as nothing more than another nuisance. In the Australian state of Victoria, they just passed a law that requires drivers to slow to 40 kilometres an hour when passing or approaching an on-duty ambulance that’s on the side of the road and has its lights flashing. Those who fail to do so face a fine of at least $277 Australian ($273 Canadian). The law was put in place after a study found that one in five emergency workers had reported they’d almost been run over by speeding vehicles while on call.

In large cities, ambulance chasing is most common on the highway during rush hour. The scenario usually plays out like this:

  • Traffic is at its usual standstill. An ambulance appears in the distance, lights flashing.
  • Drivers sluggishly move out of the way. The ambulance cruises down the passing lane.
  • A few opportunistic ambulance chasers zip in behind and ride the slipstream.

This move is unsavoury on a number of levels.

On an ethical plane, you’re using another person’s misfortune (an illness or injury that requires emergency care) in order to shorten your commute. That’s low.

On a safety level, you’re running the risk of hitting other cars that will be moving to clear the way for the ambulance – and, if you’re tailgating close enough, you run the risk of rear-ending the ambulance. Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) already have a tough and dangerous job to do – in 2015 the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that over 20 years there had been 4500 EMT vehicle crashes in the United States, 34 per cent of which resulted in injury. They estimated 33 people are killed in EMT-related crashes a year.

The flipside of ambulance chasing is ambulance ambivalence. It’s even more prevalent. Here we find sloth. An ambulance appears and the ambulance-ambivalent do, well, nothing. They just continue and don’t move. They let everyone else make way. That ambulance will find its way to the emergency room eventually, their thinking goes.

Think of responsible conduct around emergency vehicles as a way to fulfill those childhood dreams of being a fireman or paramedic. When you see those flashing ambulance lights, bring your vehicle to an immediate stop as near as possible to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway. Think of it as doing your part.

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