Do the right thing!
That's what law enforcement officials wish drivers would remember when they see flashing lights in their rear view mirror and hear a siren, but they say too many do everything but pull over to the right side of the road.
"I've had an awful lot of people say, 'I had an ambulance coming up behind me and I didn't know what to do,'" said California Highway Patrol Officer Cliff Kroeger, spokesman for the agency's Contra Costa area office.
Sunday's fatal collision on Vasco Road at Camino Diablo between a car and a fire truck racing to a call -- an accident investigators believe might have been averted if the driver of the Toyota at least had slowed as it entered the intersection -- is a reminder of what can happen when motorists in the path of an emergency vehicle don't react correctly.
More often than not people don't yield when he's responding to an urgent call for help, says Steve Borbely, Oakley Police Department's traffic officer and the lead investigator for fatal and major injury traffic accidents.
He recalls the time he was driving along Main Street in Oakley on full alert and a young woman just ahead of him began to move to the right only to veer back into his lane.
Apparently panicked, she came to a complete stop in the middle of the road, forcing Borbely to go around her.
Although he acknowledges that blaring car stereos and cell phone conversations can distract drivers from noticing fast-approaching ambulances, fire trucks or police cars, Borbely thinks the biggest culprit is ignorance.
"Aside from driver's education, how many people have taken a defensive driving course?" he said. "It's not second nature (to pull over to the right) -- it's not something they practice on a regular basis. Most drivers have to stop and analyze (the situation) instead of reacting to the stimulus."
And yet the rules of the road aren't so arcane that drivers can't respond properly.
California's Vehicle Code requires drivers to clear a path for emergency help by immediately pulling over to the right side of the road and stopping when they hear sirens and see an illuminated red light behind them, Kroeger said.
That goes for motorists on the inside lane of a double right-hand turn as well as for those approaching an intersection, he said.
If the emergency vehicle is coming from the opposite direction, drivers on a road that doesn't have a median barrier still should move to the right and stop just in case the ambulance or fire truck turns onto a cross-street directly in front of them, Kroeger said.
Even drivers in a left-hand turn lane should point their vehicles toward the right-hand side of the street when they become aware of a first responder's distress signals, he said.
They had better do it carefully, however.
Motorists stopped at an intersection don't have a defense if they run a red light to avoid an emergency vehicle and hit another vehicle in the process, Kroeger said.
Better to wait a few more moments for the signal to change, he said, adding that many ambulances and fire trucks are equipped with electronic devices that trigger traffic lights to turn green in their direction as they close in on an intersection.
If confused drivers stop in their tracks, police or paramedics responding to a Code 3 call -- the only time they're allowed to ignore stop signs, red lights and speed limits -- might have no choice but to pass on their right, Kroeger said.
That maneuver increases the risk of a crash because people who initially fail to yield might belatedly decide to turn toward the shoulder of the road -- and turn right into the passing ambulance or patrol car, he said.
Borbely recalls an incident where that very thing happened: A sheriff's deputy was rushing to the aid of another officer in Oakley and the driver in front of him didn't move out of the way immediately.
When the deputy tried to pass on the right, however, the person began to pull into the same lane.