It was easy for me to see the blazing lights atop the fire truck as it approached me from a block away. Sirens at full tilt, some cars pulled to the right; some carried on as if impervious to light and sound; some froze. But maybe the most dangerous? I watched a woman sitting in the front row of cars at the light glance at the cacophony in her rear-view mirror, and then drive through the intersection – the site of eight lanes of live traffic – on a red light.
Why the confusion? We all know what you're supposed to do when you hear or see emergency vehicles approaching: pull to the right and stop, immediately. What occurs instead is too often a dog's breakfast of responses, ones that often complicate the passage of those vehicles and endanger the lives of those they're rushing to help.
Many of us get inherently selfish in our cars, our actions reflecting the cocooned safety we feel being at arm's length from our interaction with others. More powerful in our automotive armour, we act and react in ways that would never happen if, say, we clashed shopping carts with someone, or arrived at a closed door at the same time. Being annoyed or annoying on the road is one thing; standing in the way of a life-or-death situation is another.
According to Toronto Police Services Constable Clint Stibbe, the problem is twofold. "Most people panic because they're confused or worried that what they are doing is wrong or they are unsure and think if they make a movement and it is incorrect they may be charged with an offence." While he admits traffic offences are possible, the answer is the same as it has always been: pull to the right and stop.
The other problem? It's not something we're required to do very often, so our responses get rusty. "The average driver only has to pull to the right for an emergency vehicle a handful of times a year, or in some cases not at all. A refresher for drivers about the rules of the road can only help make a driver safer, smarter and a more courteous as a road user."
But on our clogged and congested roadways, what are your choices when your options are limited? What if you're at the dreaded red light, boxed in, and hear the sirens?
The Ontario Highway Traffic Act stipulates, says Stibbe, that "if there are more than two lanes of traffic [one way] on the roadway [same direction] a driver must pull over to the nearest curb [left or right]."
Most of our roads have a lot of wiggle room. If we all reacted with the same response – pull to the right, or the nearest curb, and stop – at the same time, response times would benefit immensely. If you're adjacent to a driveway or entrance, pull in. It can become a proverbial game of inches, but it all helps, and the people driving those blazing emergency vehicles are well trained to take advantage of the pathways and pockets that hopefully open before them.
I asked Stibbe about my lady who busted the red light. "No one may proceed through any traffic control, not even police, unless that vehicle is an emergency vehicle and it stops prior to proceeding through the traffic control and only if the movement can be done safely. Police may only go through intersections while emergency equipment is activated."
Emergency crews need to you to make way for them, not create another emergency.
Thinking of diving into the gap behind that fire truck you just let pass? Who else is making better time across the city at rush hour, right? Forget it. Ontario law dictates you must stay at least 150 metres behind, so that wake is not your lucky break.
In 2009, Ontario enacted a law concerning stopped emergency vehicles on the roadway. You are required to slow down in passing and, on highways with two or more lanes, slow down and change lanes when safe to do so. Emergency personnel are exposed to great risk as they assist motorists, their jobs often requiring them to be in or near live lanes of traffic. The fine [$400-$2,000 plus three demerit points] is steep and fair.
During your driver training days, you were reminded to check your mirrors constantly. It's a good habit to regain if you've lost it. Maybe you listen to music loudly; maybe you even sing along, loudly. Maybe some of us think that songs that feature siren sounds should be illegal. Either way, no matter how comfortable or enjoyable your driving experience, your first obligation is to safety.
I didn't know if those emergency vehicles I saw were coming to or from the emergency. I didn't know if it was a member of my family who called 911, or if it was your caregiver calling for your kids, or your mom calling for your dad.
But I do know we owe it to each other to remember our roles, be predictable on the road, and help each other out. I don't want to be the one between you and the people who can save your life.