Back To Basics: State Vehicle And Traffic Laws That Apply To You

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In the last installment of Emergency Vehicle Operations "Back to Basics" we reviewed rules surrounding some of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards as they relate to emergency vehicle driving. This month we will discuss state vehicle and traffic laws that are applicable to emergency vehicle operators.

Most states allow emergency vehicle operators some exemptions from traffic laws that must be followed by civilian drivers. There is one state that is different that I am aware of, New Jersey, where legislation is pending to bring its statutes in line with the rest of the states.

The exemptions granted by states for emergency vehicle drivers have conditions attached. The following is that part of the statute that is the same, as it appears in most states:

Authorized Emergency Vehicles
(a) The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle, when involved in an emergency operation, may exercise the privileges set forth in this section, but subject to the conditions herein stated.
(b) The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle may:

1. Stop, stand or park irrespective of the provisions of this title; 2. Proceed past a steady red signal, a flashing red signal or a stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operations; 3. Exceed the maximum speed limits so long as he does not endanger life or property; 4. Disregard regulations governing directions of movement or turning in specified directions.
(c) Except for an authorized emergency vehicle operated as a police vehicle or bicycle, the exemptions herein granted to an authorized emergency vehicle shall apply only when audible signals are sounded from any said vehicle while in motion by bell, horn, siren, electronic device or exhaust whistle as may be reasonably necessary, and when the vehicle is equipped with at least one lighted lamp so that from any direction, under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of five hundred feet from such vehicle, at least one red light will be displayed and visible.

(d) The foregoing provisions shall not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons, nor shall such provisions protect the driver from the consequences of his reckless disregard for the safety of others.

We will educate you as to how the law affects you as an emergency vehicle operator by going section by section with a detailed explanation of each section.

The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle, when involved in an emergency operation, may exercise the privileges set forth in this section, but subject to the conditions herein stated. Authorized emergency vehicles are defined differently from state to state; however, all police vehicles, ambulances, fire apparatus and most fire chiefs' cars are considered authorized emergency vehicles in most states.

The next section of the statute refers to emergency operation. The inference here is that it refers to the definition of a "true emergency." According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) emergency vehicle operations instructor's manual, "A true emergency is a situation in which there is a high probability of death or serious injury to an individual or significant property loss, and action by an emergency vehicle operator may reduce the seriousness of the situation." Do all of your calls for help fit this definition? Probably not. We will discuss "true emergency" in depth next time.

The next part of the statute states that the emergency vehicle operator MAY exercise the privileges in this section, "subject to the conditions herein stated." First, the statute says you MAY exercise the privileges; it does not say you must or that you always, or that you are obligated to do so; it says you MAY.

The law states we are going to give emergency vehicle operators some privileges BUT and it is a big BUT we are going to attach some conditions. You see, there is no free lunch here. The law gives you privileges as an emergency vehicle operator, but the law is also going to hold you responsible and accountable.

The first privilege is that you can "stop, stand or park irrespective of the provisions of this title." What does this mean? If you are going to a "true emergency" and have your warning devices activated, you can park the apparatus anywhere you desire. Bus stop, no-parking zone, it does not matter - you can park it anywhere.

The second privilege is that you may proceed past a steady red signal, a flashing red signal or a stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operations. You can proceed past a red light, flashing red light or a stop sign - that is the privilege. The condition is that you must slow down as may be necessary for safe operation. In other words, you can blow through red lights and stop signs all day long - but don't hit anyone, don't hurt anyone and don't damage anyone's property. If you do hurt someone or damage anyone's property, you will be held criminally and civilly liable. Morally, you should come to a full stop in this situation.

The third privilege is that emergency vehicle operators going to a "true emergency" can exceed the maximum speed limits so long as they do not endanger life or property. The privilege is exceeding maximum speed limits, the condition is that you cannot endanger life or property. You can travel at Mach 1 or Mach 2, go twice the speed of sound, but you can never endanger life or property. If you choose to exceed maximum posted speed limits and you get in an accident, you will be held criminally and civilly liable.

The last privilege lets emergency vehicle operators disregard regulations governing directions of movement or turning in specified directions. An emergency vehicle operator going to a "true emergency" can go the wrong way down a one-way street, cross a double yellow line or make U-turns in a no-U-turn zone. However, you cannot hit anyone or hurt anyone in the process - remember, you are responsible and accountable.

The next section of the statute states that, "Except for an authorized emergency vehicle operated as a police vehicle or bicycle, the exemptions herein granted to an authorized emergency vehicle shall apply only when audible signals are sounded from any said vehicle while in motion by bell, horn, siren, electronic device or exhaust whistle as may be reasonably necessary." In other words, in some states the only vehicles that can drive around with only warning lights on and no audible signal (i.e., siren or air horn) are police vehicles.

Also note that there is an out. The law states that you must use your audible warning devices as MAY be reasonably necessary. The intent of the law here is not for the fire apparatus or ambulances going past the senior citizens complex at 3 o'clock in the morning with no traffic or intersections to be blaring the siren and the air horn. Common sense must prevail in a situation like this. This makes for poor public relations and is counterproductive. The end of this section lists the warning light requirements under the law.

The most important section of the statute says, "The foregoing provisions shall not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons, nor shall such provisions protect the driver from the consequences of his reckless disregard for the safety of others." The following provisions refer to that section of the law that allows emergency vehicle operators the four exemptions, during a "true emergency" response: parking anywhere you want, going through stop signs and red lights, exceeding maximum posted speed limits and going the wrong way down a one-way street. But the statute goes on to state that you must drive with "due regard" for the safety of all others. In other words, you must drive better than everyone else when you have your lights and sirens on.

According to the DOT instructor's manual, "due regard is based on circumstances." In judging "due regard," the principal criterion used is: Was there "enough" notice of approach to allow other motorists and pedestrians to clear a path and protect themselves? If you do not give enough notice of your emergency vehicle's approach until a collision is inevitable, you have probably not satisfied the principle of due regard for the safety of others.

A widely accepted way of determining "due regard" is: "A reasonably careful man performing similar duties and under the same circumstances would act in the same manner." The basic premise here is that if you have your lights and sirens on going to a "true emergency" and you hit someone, hurt someone or damage someone's property, you own most, if not all of the liability. It is important to note that most fire service organizations urge emergency vehicle operators to come to a full stop at all intersections with red lights, stop signs or any other negative traffic control devices.

My next column will examine in depth the terms "true emergency" and "due regard" and what they mean to you and your fire department. Have a happy holiday season.


Michael Wilbur, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, and has served for the past five years on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He has consulted on a variety of apparatus related issues throughout the country. For further information access his new website at www.emergencyvehicleresponse.com.

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