Many people have asked local firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical technicians why emergency vehicles seem to be using their sirens more often and why residents seem to be hearing more sirens even at night when there is very little traffic. There are several reasons, including a significant increase in emergency calls for all local emergency services organizations and a general increase in vehicular and pedestrian traffic as well as an overall effort to improve safety and reduce liability while responding to calls.
According to Rhode Island Law, there are certain times when the drivers of authorized emergency vehicles are entitled to special privileges subject to certain conditions. These privileges include parking irrespective of the provisions of any law, proceeding past a red or stop signal or stop sign (but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation), exceeding speed limits so long as they do not endanger life or property, and disregarding regulations governing the direction and the movement of traffic.
However, as previously noted, certain conditions must be met in order to exercise special privileges. One of these conditions is that the law does not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons. That means that it is the responsibility of the driver of each piece of emergency apparatus to drive safely at all times. In addition, the law does not protect the driver from the consequences of the driver’s reckless disregard for the safety of others.
The other important and relevant condition that directly effects the frequency of siren use is that the special privileges and exemptions granted to an authorized emergency vehicle in Rhode Island only apply when the driver of the vehicle sounds an audible signal, such as a siren.
Rhode Island General Law requires other drivers to yield to emergency vehicles. It requires that upon the immediate approach of an authorized emergency vehicle equipped with any one or combination of red, blue, or white flashing lights and producing an audible signal such as a siren, the driver of every other vehicle must yield the right of way. This means they must immediately drive to a position parallel to, and as close as possible to, the right-hand edge of the roadway, clear of any intersection. The law also requires that the drivers of other vehicles must then stop and remain stopped in that position until the authorized emergency vehicle has passed. The important point is that the authorized emergency vehicle driver must be using his siren in order to legally require other drivers to yield the right of way.
On a related note, while we are discussing emergency vehicles responding to calls, your local first responders would like to remind everyone that the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law in 2014 that requires drivers to reduce speed and move over when approaching emergency vehicles parked or operating in the road. The law is commonly referred to as the “Slow Down, Move Over Law” and was passed to help provide a safe work zone for those who make their living within inches of passing traffic. It is important to note that in addition to police cars, firetrucks, and ambulances, this law also applies to drivers approaching tow trucks, transport trucks, road maintenance trucks, and roadside assistance trucks while operating or parked in the road and displaying flashing yellow lights.
The Move Over Law requires that the driver of every vehicle must drive at an appropriate reduced speed when approaching or in the presence of emergency vehicles displaying flashing lights. It also requires that when an authorized emergency vehicle is parked or standing within 12 feet of a roadway and is giving a warning signal by appropriate flashing light, the driver of every other approaching vehicle must, as soon as it is safe, and when not otherwise directed by an individual who is lawfully directing traffic, slow down and move their vehicle into a lane that is not the lane nearest to the parked or standing authorized emergency vehicle and must continue traveling in that lane until safely clear of the authorized emergency vehicle.
This obviously applies only if the roadway has at least two lanes for traffic proceeding in the direction of the approaching vehicle and if the approaching vehicle can change lanes safely without interfering with other traffic. The other option is to slow down and operate your vehicle at a reduced speed until completely past the emergency vehicle. This applies if the road has only one lane for traffic proceeding in the direction of the approaching vehicle or if the approaching vehicle cannot change lanes safely without interfering with other traffic.
You are probably hearing sirens more frequently because first responders are using them more often in order to make sure you are aware of their approach. Their audible signals help them safely maneuver through traffic and allow them to quickly provide assistance to someone in need. As discussed, the siren needs to be operating any time first responders are exercising special privileges granted to the authorized emergency vehicles. Thank you for helping first responders do their jobs safely.
For more information about laws pertaining to emergency vehicles and situations that require you to reduce speed on the roadway, please consult the Rhode Island General Laws, including 31-12-6 Emergency vehicles times when entitled to special privileges, 31-12-7 Privileges allowed emergency vehicles, 31-12-8 Warning signals given by emergency vehicles, 31-12-9 Due care by emergency vehicles, 31-17-6 Yielding to emergency vehicles, and 31-14-3 Conditions requiring reduced speed.
This column was written by Jane Perkins, Fire Safety Specialist for 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.