Oklahoma Rescuers Struggle with Other Drivers during Responses

Graham has been a paramedic for 20 years and he's seen plenty of unwilling or inattentive drivers


MATT PATTERSON, The Oklahoman | | Wednesday, July 6, 2011

John Graham has been a paramedic for 20 years, and he's seen plenty of unwilling or inattentive drivers who don't let emergency vehicles have the right of way.

Ten years ago, an ambulance he was riding in was sideswiped.

"She assumed we were going straight, but we weren't," Graham said.

There were no injuries, but the story is an example of what emergency responders deal with, whether in a fire truck, ambulance, or police car.

"It happens every day, literally every time we turn on the lights and siren," Graham said. "It's either somebody that is inattentive, or (they're) attempting to beat a traffic light before we get there."

Required to give way

Oklahoma law requires drivers to yield to emergency vehicles using lights and sirens.

Drivers are required to pull to the right and stay put until the emergency vehicle is past them.

But some don't.

Graham said he doesn't think most people intentionally ignore lights and sirens, but don't pay close enough attention. He said improved soundproofing of vehicles by carmakers, along with cellphones calls and texting, have made what was already a problem a little worse.

For fire department rescue ladders are long and cumbersome and require more space to get through traffic or an intersection. If vehicles are blocking the way, it can put lives at risk, said Al Cothran, Oklahoma City Fire Department battalion chief.

"We see a lot of vehicles that speed up to try to make a left turn, or some that just stop right in the middle of the road," Cothran said. "That's either because they don't know what to do or they're not aware we're behind them because they've got their radio up too loud or have headphones in.

"Those become difficult situations because we then have to anticipate what the driver is going to do next."

Still, Cothran said firefighters who drive the trucks are trained to deal with such situations.

Firefighters aren't eligible to drive a rig until they've been with the department two years.

Then, they must go to a school for driving large rigs.

"There's a heavy emphasis on defensive driving," he said. "And that training continues after they're done. Anytime we see or hear of an accident involving a fire truck around the nation we study it to see what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future."

Stay in vehicle

There are also guidelines for what to do when pulled over by a police officer. Some people want to get out of their cars.

"When you're pulled over, you should always stay in your vehicle," said Master Sgt. Gary Knight of the Oklahoma City Police Department.

"It's not a good idea to get out, unless directed to do so by the officer. It creates a safety hazard for you and the officer."

Knight also recommended drivers leave their hands on their steering wheel. If they need to reach for an insurance verification form or a license, it's a good idea to let the officer know beforehand.

As far as where to pull over, drivers should always pull over to the right.

If there's no shoulder area on the road, officers will not mind if a driver finds a safe spot.

"The most important thing to do is to pull over where it's safe," Knight said. "You should never stop on a highway or in a lane of traffic or a busy intersection. It's OK to pull into a parking lot or some other area where there is less traffic."

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