Fatal Ambulance Crash Prompts Charleston Study

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Charleston County (S.C.) is reviewing its driving policy for emergency vehicles following last month’s ambulance crash that killed a College of Charleston student.

The county review comes as the Sheriff’s Office wraps up its investigation to determine how fast the ambulance was traveling in an oncoming-traffic lane and whether any criminal charges are warranted.

Crash investigators expect to announce as soon as next week what they learned from the ambulance’s “black box” data recorder, a device similar to those used on airplanes that capture traveling speed and other information.

“We are in the final stages of our investigation,” Sheriff’s Maj. John Clark said Wednesday. “We’re going to sit down with the Solicitor’s Office and advise them of our findings, on whether there may or may not be any appropriate charges.”

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said it is still too early for her to form a legal opinion about what happened.

The March 25 crash near the downtown campus killed Emily J. Salisbury, a senior biology major from West Virginia.

Salisbury, 22, was driving east on Calhoun Street, waiting to make a left turn onto Pitt Street at 9:15 a.m. The ambulance was headed east to help an unconscious person on Laurens Street, a couple blocks south of Calhoun near East Bay Street. Its lights and sirens were on.

As the ambulance approached Salisbury’s car on the busy two-lane road, it pulled around traffic and drove into the oncoming lanes, officials said. It slammed into the driver’s door on Salisbury’s car as she made her turn. She died of head injuries less than an hour later at Medical University Hospital.

The Sheriff’s Office identified the ambulance driver as Gerald Stewart, a full-time EMS employee since September 2006. Riding with Stewart was Paul Guthrie, an EMS employee for nearly 10 years.

The ambulance normally was assigned to a station on S.C. Highway 174 on Edisto Island but had just dropped off a patient downtown and was the closest to the emergency on Laurens Street when that call went out.

Charleston Countypublic information officer Jennie Davis confirmed Wednesday that county officials initiated a review of the county’s emergency-vehicle driving policy after the accident. County Administrator Mack Canterbury was unavailable for comment.

County policy allows ambulances responding to emergencies to exceed posted speed limits by no more than 10 mph, and it permits driving against the flow of traffic. The policy places a heavy burden on ambulance drivers to ensure the safety of other motorists and pedestrians.

The special allowances for ambulances “shall not relieve the driver from the duty to operate the vehicle with due regard for safety of life and property,” according to the policy dated November 2004.

County Council chairman Tim Scott said it’s premature to say whether the driving policy should be changed. “Whenever something of this severity happens, you review your policies. In light of someone’s child being gone, I think it’s appropriate for politicians to stay out of it until it’s time to act.”

Since 2001, Charleston County EMS vehicles have been involved in an average of 43 accidents per year, according to county records. The accidents include crashes in which county ambulances were found to be at fault, minor fender-benders, vandalism and other mishaps such as striking road debris.

The county’s 26 ambulances respond to an average of 50,000 calls per year and log a total of about 2.2 million miles, officials said.

Nationally, ambulance crashes are rare. But because the national ambulance fleet is relatively small – about 50,000 – some experts think they are more dangerous than other vehicles when based on miles traveled.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recorded 25 fatal ambulance accidents nationally in 2006, the most recent year for which figures were available. Twelve of the deaths occurred while the ambulances were in emergency use; one ambulance driver, three ambulance passengers, seven occupants of other vehicles and one pedestrian were killed.

That same year, 16 people died in collisions involving firetrucks, and 39 were killed in crashes involving police vehicles in emergency use, the NTSB said.

Universityof South Carolina criminology professor Geoff Alpert, who has studied emergency vehicle responses, said it’s hard to draw conclusions about ambulance crashes because of the limited data. But in general, he said, ambulance and fire truck drivers are more cautious than police in emergency responses.

One expert said she thinks the public would benefit from more federal oversight of ambulance crashes. The National Transportation Safety Board does not investigate them. South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control investigates only when patient care is involved.

Federal involvement would allow more sharing of information between first responders around the country, said Nadine Levick, an emergency physician and past faculty member of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Levick, founder of Objective Safety, a resource to promote safety in EMS-related jobs, said the Charleston County investigation could yield valuable lessons for other EMS workers.

“These are issues of national significance,” she said. “What happens when the sheriff’s done with their investigation? The report gets filed in a filing cabinet, and nobody else in the nation benefits.”

Reach Noah Haglund at nhaglund@postandcourier.com or 937-5550. Reach Ron Menchaca at rmenchaca@postandcourier.com or 937-5724.

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