What should drivers do to stay safe and protect first responders when passing a roadside emergency?
Speeding past emergency vehicles is an everyday occurrence on the nation’s highways. There are over 12,000 roadway incidents each year in which dozens of firefighters, police officers, EMTs, transportation department workers, and towing and recovery employees are killed.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, injury and fatality rates among emergency responders are more than twice the national average for all industries. The Emergency Responder Safety Institute reported that local fire departments responded to nearly 4.5 million roadside incidents in 2014. The ERSI found that traffic-related incidents caused 12 percent of EMS worker fatalities and 5 percent of firefighter deaths. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reported that similar roadside incidents were the leading cause of law enforcement officer deaths in 2017, accounting for nearly 20 percent of police officers killed in the line of duty.
Another study was done by the National Traffic Incident Management Coalition. According to the NTIMC, the likelihood of a secondary crash increases by about 3 percent for every minute the initial incident continues to be a hazard. A law enforcement officer may be struck while helping a stranded motorist or while directing traffic; a firefighter may be hit by a motorist while advancing a hose line across a roadway toward a vehicle fire; or a paramedic may be struck by a car while attending to an accident victim.
Factors that contribute to these secondary incidents include changes in traffic conditions: a lengthening line of other vehicles, sudden drops in speed, as well as rubbernecking. Secondary crashes caused by congestion are estimated at 20 percent of all crashes. Effective traffic incident management programs can prevent or reduce secondary crashes by reducing the duration of incidents, thus helping to protect first responders.
The traffic management coalition is trying to reduce secondary crashes by promoting awareness and enforcement of Move Over / Slow Down laws. These laws are based on the premise that moving over or slowing down for emergency vehicles can prevent deaths and injuries. All 50 states have “Move Over” laws. Rhode Island passed its version in 2014. The law requires drivers on a multilane roadway, like Interstate 95 and Route 1, to change lanes of travel and move away from the designated vehicle as soon as it is safe to do so. On a two-lane roadway you are required to slow down to help protect emergency personnel who are working within inches of passing traffic. The law applies when a firetruck, police car, ambulance, tow truck, roadside assistance vehicle, public utility vehicle, or highway maintenance vehicle is stopped and operating its red, blue or amber lights.
Transportation safety experts say that Move Over laws depend on public awareness. But the National Safety Commission found that 71 percent of Americans had never heard of move over laws, underscoring the need for a variety of strategies to educate the public. The laws also need to be clearly and visibly enforced.
The Emergency Responder Safety Institute has developed short public service announcements with very simple messages intended to educate the driving public with three critical things they can do to protect responders working on the roadway and themselves.
These public service announcements include:
“Move Over, Slow Down” when passing emergency vehicles to give responders room to save lives. “Leave Your Phone Alone” when passing an emergency scene so you can stay focused on moving past it safely. “Move Your Car” off the roadway to wait for assistance when you are in a minor accident with no injuries and your car is drivable.
To view the ERSI public service announcements, visit www.respondersafety.com. The institute encourages members of the community to share these messages on social media.
Jane Perkins is a fire safety specialist with the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.