COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A few times each year in Ohio, vehicles that are on the road to save lives are involved in crashes that end them.
It happened in Licking County last week, when a 93-year-old man died after he pulled out from a gas-station parking lot into the path of a private ambulance.
Emergency responders say crashes like the one that killed Richard F. Little of Granville are tragic but rare, considering the number of runs by public and private ambulances across Ohio every day.
State statistics show that five ambulances were involved in fatal crashes last year, the highest number in six years. But with the exception of 2011, the total number of ambulances involved in any kind of crash statewide has dropped steadily since 2007.
"More patients are probably being moved, in addition to seeing the ambulance crashes dropping," said Thomas Allenstein, a member of the Ohio Medical Transportation Board that inspects thousands of private ambulances, medical helicopters and airplanes.
"There's an estimated 2.3 million one-way trips -- medical trips -- that occur annually in Ohio" by private ambulance, said Ronald Grout, the board's executive director.
A 2011 study by the Fire Protection Research Foundation found that 691 people died in 590 fatal crashes involving ambulances nationwide between 1990 and 2009. Most occurred when the ambulances were responding to emergencies.
Three of the five fatal wrecks involving ambulances or similar vehicles during the past year occurred in central Ohio.
On Sept. 18, a Columbus police detective who had been ill with cancer was killed when she crossed the center line of Rt. 142 in Madison County and collided with an ambulance from the county's Jefferson Township Fire Department.
An East Side woman was killed in May when she tried crossing Rt. 33 in southeastern Franklin County and collided with a private ambulance.
And in March, an ambulette driver and his patient were killed when the driver ran into the back of a flatbed truck hauling lumber outside Chillicothe. An ambulette does not take emergency runs and typically transports patients in wheelchairs.
Columbus Division of Fire vehicles of all kinds were involved in 139 crashes, none fatal, last year, said Battalion Chief Patrick Ferguson, division spokesman. He did not know how many were medic trucks but said they likely were well-represented given their time on the road.
"We take 120,000 EMS runs a year," he said.
Most of the wrecks are the result of trucks' squeezing through tight alleys and congested city streets where some motorists fail to yield, Ferguson said. "We clip a lot of mirrors."
According to the American Ambulance Association, ambulance drivers are several times more likely than civilian drivers to get into crashes, on a per-mile basis.
Allenstein, who is chief operations officer of MedFlight in Columbus, said ambulances are more visible nowadays because research has provided better LED lights and outward markings.
In addition, runs with lights blinking and sirens blazing are made less often than in decades past, Grout said, because medical experts have realized that the quality of on-board care can be more important than the time it takes to reach a hospital.
But when much of the workday is spent in a hurry, crashes will never be eliminated, Ferguson said.
"Sometimes, it's just unavoidable."