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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:
(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.