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Uninformed Motorists Impede Emergency Vehicles

VICTORVILLE, Calif. -- The call came out over the sheriff's radio frequency: A 10-year-old boy had been hit by a fleeing motorist at Center Street Park. Deputy James Marshall of the sheriff's Victorville, Calif., station was on routine patrol near the intersection of Palmdale and Mariposa roads when he heard the call. Within seconds, he flipped on his lights and sirens known as going "Code 3" and made for the park as fast as safety would allow.

On his way, 12 vehicles failed to take the appropriate action moving to the right lane or shoulder and stopping causing him to maneuver around them. Once he had to drive in a lane of oncoming traffic. One motorist even came to a complete stop in the lane, directly in front of Marshall's patrol car.

The problem is a prevalent one for the Sheriff's Department, local fire departments and the area ambulance service, American Medical Response. They said that on a typical day, at least one Code 3 run is disrupted or made more difficult by drivers who do not know the rules of the road.

That issue is exacerbated because many times drivers cannot hear the sirens until an emergency vehicle is upon them, due to things like loud radios, rolled up windows and the fact that the sirens are directional and meant to bounce off buildings, which there can be a shortage of in open desert areas of the Victor Valley, officials said.

"It's amazing how many motorists have no idea what to do," said Traffic Sgt. John Mattke of the Victorville station. "It can greatly impede our ability to get where we need to be in a timely fashion."

The rule is to always go to the right, traffic deputies said. If a motorist fails to do so, the deputies will be forced to go further left, sometimes into oncoming traffic, to get around the stopped or unyielding vehicles.

"The worst thing, especially for (deputies on motorcycles) is if someone decides to go to the left to get out of the way, because that's where we're going to be," said Deputy Jeff Wetmore. "If for some reason you can't get to the right, if you're stuck in the middle, the next best thing would be just to stop, not to go to the left."

At the sheriff's training academy in Devore there is a circular speed track, and aspiring deputies go through an exercise meant to demonstrate how difficult it can be to hear an approaching patrol car.

"They tell you to drive at a designated speed, and the patrol car will come up behind you with lights and sirens on. At the end, you tell them how close the unit was before you could hear the sirens," Marshall said.

In most cases, the patrol unit is within 20 yards before the sirens are ever heard, deputies explained. That's because the sirens are directional, and when they have nothing to bounce off of, they cannot be heard from great distances.

In larger cities with high rise buildings, Mattke explained, that is not as much of a problem.

Local firefighters said they often have trouble with motorists clearing intersections for the engine, despite the blaring siren.

"People will just stop, or pull out in front of the engines," said Fire Investigator Joe Zuccaro of the Victorville Fire Department.

For AMR drivers, who are not allowed to travel faster than 80 mph, the time it takes to respond to calls and get people to medical facilities is often a matter of life and death.

"We just don't have time to weave in and out around people," one AMR driver said. "Besides, that's not safe for us with patients."

On the other end of the spectrum, Mattke says one rule many motorists do not understand is that on a divided road where there is a median, those driving on the opposite side of the road do not have to stop.

Regardless, officials stress the importance of being safe on the roadways and knowing the appropriate action to take in any given situation.

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