Ambulances and civilian drivers: a traffic etiquette question!
March 26, 2015 10:33 AM   Subscribe

The other day, I was driving home from work and an ambulance was coming up from behind. I didn't pull over because it didn't seem useful, a nearby motorcyclist chewed me out through my open window: "You're supposed to pull over when there's an ambulance!!" Due to the not-so-snowflakey details inside, I'm struggling to understand what the right thing to do would've been.

So I didn't pull over because it didn't seem like it'd make any difference to the ambulance (I was in the right lane, and cars in the lane beside me weren't pulled over and last time I checked, an ambulance can't squeeze through ~6 feet between stopped cars). I didn't think there was any point to pulling over if the cars beside me weren't also making room.

The ambulance in this case went into the turn lane in the center of the road. Fine. But there's a hospital near my house and I expect to run into this situation more in the future.

If I'm on a two-lane road or I'm the only car in the ambulance's way, I pull over. That seems like a no-brainer. However--in the congested area around my neighborhood/the hospital, it doesn't seem to make a difference if I pull over and there's still gridlock all around. Additionally, should cars coming in the opposite direction (over 2-3 lanes of traffic) pull over also? Why/why not?

TL;DR: What do you do when you're driving and an ambulance is coming down the road?
posted by witchen to Grab Bag (51 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The rule is you always pull over, period.
posted by latkes at 10:35 AM on March 26, 2015 [156 favorites]

Yeah, you're super wrong. Always stop and pull over, no matter what. You are just plain not in a position to know everything else that's going on and everything other cars are doing. If you keep driving you leave the ambulance worried you don't see him and you're going to do something weird and go in front of him. You are making the ambulance driver's life harder by not stopping, even if he has room to go around you.
posted by brainmouse at 10:36 AM on March 26, 2015 [60 favorites]

Pull over. Always. You don't know where the ambulance is going, there could be a driveway it needs to turn into right in front of you, there could be any number of circumstances that you aren't aware of.

If other drivers aren't pulling over, that's on them.
posted by hwyengr at 10:36 AM on March 26, 2015 [24 favorites]

In Colorado, the law requires you to pull right and stop.
posted by Sheppagus at 10:36 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

If the ambulance is behind you, pull over. The problem with "but the other people aren't pulling over" argument is that it leads to a kind of 'bystander effect' problem. Nobody does what they're supposed to do because they're all waiting for someone else to do it.

As for pulling over when the ambulance is coming from the opposite direction and there are multiple lanes--that will depend on your specific state laws, I think. We're supposed to pull over here, even if there are four lanes in each direction--and that sometimes gets a bit silly.
posted by yoink at 10:38 AM on March 26, 2015 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: FWIW, it was a long stoplight so I was stopped anyway. I just didn't pull (farther) to the right, as it would've meant getting up on a sidewalk.
posted by witchen at 10:39 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

You pull over. The cars in the left lane might have been thinking the same thing, but if everybody pulls over there is more than likely enough room for the ambulance to drive through.
posted by lydhre at 10:40 AM on March 26, 2015 [12 favorites]

Friend is an ambulance driver. Seconding everything brainmouse said - always pull over.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:41 AM on March 26, 2015

At a stop light its even more important. Large vehicles need more room to make right turns.
posted by hwyengr at 10:42 AM on March 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

There's an interesting discussion at r/AskLEO about what to do when you're stopped at a red light with an emergency vehicle approaching from behind you.
posted by zamboni at 10:46 AM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

If you are at a stop light and already in the right lane, I think what you did was fine. You were stopped. The issue becomes making room for other cars to pull over too. I would not go up on the sidewalk intentionally.
posted by 724A at 10:46 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, you should have pulled over. It's not all about being out of the way, a big part of it is making it clear to the ambulance that you are going to STAY out of the way.
posted by saradarlin at 10:46 AM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

You pulling ahead a couple feet and over means the person behind you can.
Someone that might be dying is trying to squeeze by. Regular rules of the road do not apply.
Get up a sidewalk. Do something. Make six inches of room.
As a person that was in an ambulance with my toddler son on the way to the ER ---- GET OUT OF THE WAY!!!

I ESPECIALLY go to great lengths in gridlock. Sometimes it really gets the cars moving.
posted by beccaj at 10:47 AM on March 26, 2015 [12 favorites]

Here is the NY State Law: (Emphasis mine)

S 1144. Operation of vehicles on approach of authorized emergency
vehicles. (a) Upon the immediate approach of an authorized emergency
vehicle equipped with at least one lighted lamp exhibiting red light
visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of five
hundred feet to the front of such vehicle other than a police vehicle or
bicycle when operated as an authorized emergency vehicle, and when
audible signals are sounded from any said vehicle by siren, exhaust
whistle, bell, air-horn or electronic equivalent; the driver of every
other vehicle shall yield the right of way and shall immediately drive
to a position parallel to, and as close as possible to the right-hand
edge or curb of the roadway, or to either edge of a one-way roadway
three or more lanes in width, clear of any intersection, and shall stop
and remain in such position until the authorized emergency vehicle has
passed, unless otherwise directed by a police officer.

(b) This section shall not operate to relieve the driver of an
authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with reasonable care
for all persons using the highway.
posted by 724A at 10:48 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Pull over and stop. You must stop even if you can't pull over.
posted by brujita at 10:52 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just didn't pull (farther) to the right, as it would've meant getting up on a sidewalk.

Then I'm not sure what your question is about. You certainly aren't supposed to mount the sidewalk. What was the guy on the motorbike chastising you about?
posted by yoink at 10:53 AM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

Also, if you pull over and stop but they need you to eventually pull forward a bit to fix some gridlock (this happens periodically at a particularly goofy stretch of road near me), believe me, they will let you know.
posted by dorque at 10:56 AM on March 26, 2015

Response by poster: I just didn't pull (farther) to the right, as it would've meant getting up on a sidewalk.

Then I'm not sure what your question is about. You certainly aren't supposed to mount the sidewalk. What was the guy on the motorbike chastising you about?

yoink: Yes, basically. I didn't think there was any more I could've done--already stopped, in the far right lane--and the motorcyclist (who did drive onto the sidewalk) was upset in a way that seemed disporportionate to the offense. So if the mistake was more grave than I'd realized, I don't want to repeat it in the future.

It's also possible the motorcyclist was just having a rough day, etc.?
posted by witchen at 10:58 AM on March 26, 2015

Additionally, should cars coming in the opposite direction (over 2-3 lanes of traffic) pull over also? Why/why not?

Even with multiple lanes of traffic, yes. I've seen emergency vehicles cross into the oncoming traffic lanes plenty of times on multi-lane roads, especially if there's a stack of cars at a stoplight that have trouble moving to the right. The only exception I've ever heard is if the traffic directions are separated by a median, but that was 20 years ago (in California) and I can't find any kind of legal cite for it or what actually constitutes a "median"(lanscaping? K-rail? Curb?).
posted by LionIndex at 11:02 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's also possible the motorcyclist was just having a rough day, etc.?

Yeah as you can see by the responses above, people have strong opinions about what people are supposed to do both legally and etiquette-wise in terms of things like emergency vehicles. You do not get on the sidewalk (I can see a case where maybe there was literally not enough room for an emergency vehicle in which case maybe, otherwise, no). However, if you can scootch over a few more inches next to parked cars or next to the sidewalk when there's an emergency vehicle behind you even if you're already in the right lane and they are in the left, that's a good idea.
posted by jessamyn at 11:02 AM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

I was in the right lane, and cars in the lane beside me weren't pulled over and last time I checked, an ambulance can't squeeze through ~6 feet between stopped cars

You should have pulled as far over as possible, and in doing so, moved forward. That would have given the cars next to you the room to maneuver into your lane, clearing traffic for the emergency vehicle.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 11:02 AM on March 26, 2015 [7 favorites]

I thought you only have to pull over if their lights are flashing and/or their siren was on. Were either of those true? If not, I don't pull over. I've been driving almost 20 years and haven't gotten a ticket for that yet.
posted by tckma at 11:02 AM on March 26, 2015

If the motorcyclist drove onto the sidewalk, they were breaking the law and decidedly doing the wrong thing. And, no--if you're already stopped and adjacent to the curb there's not much more you can do. Inching into the gutter is worth doing (so the cars next to you have a bit more room to pull over), but you're definitely not supposed to bump up over the curb.
posted by yoink at 11:03 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

No, you should not mount a sidewalk in a car. If a motorcyclist can do so safely, fine, but you can't do that in a car. Pull over means as far to the side of the road as you can. Also, do not block a turn lane. If there is no division between the directions of travel, the ambulance can/will use the oncoming lane to get around really bad gridlock, so yes everyone needs to stop.
posted by soelo at 11:04 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Your profile says you're in NC? This is from the North Carolina driver's handbook.

Emergency and Law Enforcement Vehicles

Police cars, ambulances, fire engines and rescue vehicles with flashing lights and sirens always have the right of way.

Follow these guidelines when approaching or being approached by an emergency vehicle:

All vehicles, regardless of direction of travel, must yield right of way to an approaching emergency vehicle. This does not apply to vehicles traveling in the opposite direction of the emergency vehicle(s) when traveling on a four-lane limited-access highway with a center median.

• As the emergency vehicle approaches (from ahead or behind), drive to the right-hand curb or edge of the road and stop completely;

• Remain stopped until the emergency vehicle has passed, or until directed to move by a traffic officer;

• Do not park within 100 feet of an emergency vehicle that has stopped to investigate an accident or to give assistance;

• Do not drive or park closer than one block from fire trucks responding to a fire alarm;
posted by Squeak Attack at 11:06 AM on March 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

Assuming your wheels weren't up against the curb, you probably had a couple feet --- two or three at least --- so you could have moved over towards the curb at least a little, then the car in the next lane could've moved over that amount plus a bit more, and so on. (And I'm assuming you did have some space inbetween you and the car in front, so you did have room to manuver: the recommendation by cops and groups like AAA is to stop far enough back so you can see the bottom of the wheels of that car in front.)

The law is pretty much the same in every jurisdiction in the US: move over for emergency vehicles with their emergency lights working. No ifs ands or buts, no "in my opinion it wasn't necessary", nothing at all to consider but move over.

If obeying the law isn't enough, then consider how you'd feel if that ambulance was transporting your mother or your kid, or a fire truck was going to your house, and they couldn't get through because somebody didn't feel it necessary to inconvenience themselves a tiny bit and move their vehicle aside?
posted by easily confused at 11:13 AM on March 26, 2015 [8 favorites]

Reframe your question:

You're in the back of an ambulance strapped to a gurney. You have literally minutes to get to the hospital before you die.

What do you want the other drivers on the road to do? I suspect the answer is get the fuck out of the fucking way right fucking now, yeah? Squeeze over six inches. Pull forward a few feet. What the hell ever.

Do that. Every time.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:38 AM on March 26, 2015 [17 favorites]

I was surprised when I moved to the big city and discovered that people stopped at red lights are expected to go through if they can make way for an ambulance (people will honk angrily). I've been the person stopped in the right lane who thought she was doing all she could and gotten chewed out. So if there's a way to move forward and/or right, I now always do so. And tend to get upset with people who don't think they can go through that red light.

But the biker was also being rude to you. You're fine, just know that some will expect you to break seemingly inviolable traffic laws (like going through red lights) when there's an ambulance stuck behind.
posted by ldthomps at 11:42 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Were you by any chance the first car stopped in the light? In that case, as you were in the right-hand lane you can turn right to relieve congestion (even if a right turn takes you away from your future destination) in order to allow movement forwards and rightward behind you. That is pretty much the only scenario where I can imagine someone reminding you of the rule to get the heck out of the way and that some people may not realise they should be making right-hand turns away from their planned route. I think even moving an foot or two towards the curb is a good idea because it lets the amber lamps know you have seen them and know how to respond AND it reminds other people of what to do.
posted by saucysault at 12:17 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Additionally, should cars coming in the opposite direction (over 2-3 lanes of traffic) pull over also? Why/why not?

If everyone around the ambulance pulls over to their respective right sides of the road, i.e., all civilian cars move in a predicted direction, it is safer for the ambulance drivers paramedics/EMTs and the patient they are carrying to proceed through a congested area. Don't do what the other drivers are doing. Do what you are legally and ethically required to do.

As a few other people have said, ambulances have a better view of the intersection and civilians don't have access to all the information. On that note, please don't be too quick to pull right back out into traffic. We covered this in EMT school. We are taught not too follow too closely to an emergency vehicle in front of us. There have been plenty of accidents when civilians see one emergency vehicle go by and assume there aren't more on the way.

Good for you for asking about this to be a better driver!
posted by Beti at 12:21 PM on March 26, 2015 [8 favorites]

Hi, so, uh, paramedic here. I've been driving ambulances and fire trucks for years now.

The most important thing you can do when someone is coming up on you with lights and sirens--before anything else--is to take a deep breath and make sure you're not going to cause an accident. Don't stop dead suddenly in moving traffic. Do slow down, signal, and pull over to the right as soon as you're able. Don't pull over suddenly without checking and then hit the motorcyclist who is splitting lanes next to you to drive up onto the sidewalk (?!).

If you're stopped in traffic at a light, please do try to pull forward and further to the right, even if it's only a few inches gained. A few inches in your lane gets multiplied across several lanes, which can mean the difference between squeezing through in the opposite lane or having to "push" people into the intersection against the light, which we don't enjoy making people do. If you don't have the room to gain a couple feet in the lane by pulling forward, you're probably stopping too close to the car ahead of you, anyway.

If you're driving in the direction opposite an ambulance running lights and sirens, please slow down and pull over to the right--unless there's an impassable space between us, a grass median or Jersey barrier or whatever.

But here's the thing. For you, ambulances coming up behind you probably doesn't happen daily, so it's a startling, reaction-testing thing. For us, we cross intersections running lights and sirens many, many times a shift. We've seen it all, from randoms on their cell phones running stop signs right in front of us, to people panicking and screeching to a halt, to people pulling to the left to get out of our way. We're supposed to clear intersections safely--so even if we're running lights and sirens, we still have to slow way the hell down, to a stop in most jurisdictions, to make sure it's safe to proceed.

If someone is so very critically ill that literal seconds count, those seconds are going to get eaten up somewhere down the road where it's just physically impossible for anyone to move, or somewhere in the process of transfer of care at the hospital, or just because the person driving isn't willing to risk more lives by driving any faster than they already are. Lights and sirens help with things like strokes and heart attacks and trauma, where minutes can make a difference in terms of survivability of life and limb. But if seconds count, the patient was already very sick and there's not a lot you, in your car, can do to make a difference one way or another.

I've had ambulances sneak up on me a few times while driving, sometimes because they're only using their lights, or sometimes when I don't hear the "wail" siren because my hearing isn't super excellent across some of the frequencies. Not a big thing. Life happens. The EMT or paramedic driving the ambulance isn't going to be thinking about it for more than the ten seconds it takes to get around you and move on. So you shouldn't really be worrying about it when it inevitably happens. Be careful pulling back into your lane once the vehicle has passed--there may be more emergency vehicles, or randoms behind you may not realize you're pulling back out.

Side note: "Ambulance driver" is a perfectly cromulent way of describing a person driving an ambulance, and it doesn't bother me, but it can offend people who work on ambulances. I have worked with partners who lose their cool when patients' families who, not knowing any better, say "hey, the ambulance drivers are here". It's a little silly, but the general line of thought is that if you wouldn't call a police officer a "police car driver", because obviously they are trained to do more than drive a police car, then you should probably stick with "EMT" or "paramedic", because we are similarly trained to perform functions other than driving an ambulance. Not a big deal.

I'm glad you're thinking about this. Plenty of people on the road don't. Don't let the biker bother you.
posted by skyl1n3 at 12:25 PM on March 26, 2015 [154 favorites]

I think the importance of pulling over has been emphasized here, but as a firefighter/paramedic who must regularly find a path through congested traffic, I'll elaborate on etiquette.

Little that I see in my job makes me question humanity as much as how people drive in the presence of an emergency vehicle. It's just tremendously discouraging to see people slow down an emergency response because they can't be bothered to take twenty seconds to pull over and give me room, or they decide to use the opening created by helpful drivers ahead to leapfrog a few car lengths, slowing me down in the process. So if I seem emotionally connected to this issue, it's because I am. All I really ask of anyone is to put someone else's needs wholly above their own for the few seconds required to get me on my way.

Pulling even a few inches to one side might create enough room for a vehicle to get by. I have a very fine sense of the dimensions of our vehicles, and can get through spots that might surprise you. Even when the emergency vehicle isn't directly behind you, moving forward and out of the way can open up a bottleneck among drivers behind you. I feel for the drivers who see me coming up behind them, sirens blaring, and have literally nowhere to go until someone ahead realizes that they have to open a space. Sometimes that may mean turning right on a red light to create a path. Don't get yourself killed - do it carefully. Sometimes just stopping isn't the ideal response; recognize the situation behind you and consider that moving ahead before pulling over might be a better alternative.

I'm often forced to use a left-hand lane, as drivers pull to the right, even though I need to turn right. When people fail to pull over, it makes those right hand turns very dangerous. I have turn signals, but they tend to get lost in the explosion of flashy LEDs that cover us nowadays. So your best bet is to assume that I may be going anywhere. Stop, and if I need to be where you happen to be, I'll blow a horn at you to request that you move. Please don't get too mad at me for that; I'm doing my best to get to someone whose needs trump normal rules of traffic and courtesy.

On an undivided roadway, it can be very helpful for oncoming drivers to pull over. Anything that gives me room to maneuver and communicate my intentions to all the other vehicles around me makes the whole process go more smoothly.

Finally, I recognize that many people panic and don't know exactly what to do when the lights and sirens are right behind them. It doesn't happen every day, after all. We call that a high acuity - low frequency event, and people are notoriously bad at handling them. A great mentor of mine, seeing my growing frustration with traffic, said "you can't teach people to drive using an air horn." That was his way of saying I needed to ease off the horn and be more understanding. Whether the motorcyclist was emotionally invested in this issue or was having a bad day, I wouldn't let his presentation interfere with the message.

When I see someone pull out of my way, it's like a thing of beauty. Often I say to the other person in the cab "gold star!" because I wish I could give the driver a little civic award. I can't describe how grateful I feel for the driver who acts correctly and decisively. There will always be some chump who decides to race the ambulance, or who pulls around you when you pull over. Rest assured that the driver of that fire engine is sending you a silent note of thanks.
posted by itstheclamsname at 12:37 PM on March 26, 2015 [96 favorites]

There's one situation where I wouldn't pull over, and that's where there's not enough room for the ambulance to pass me safely, pulled over or not. Like next to a pedestrian island thing or on a really narrow windy road.

This happened to me once, and what I did was to put my foot down and speed down the road somewhat until I found a side road I could turn into.
posted by emilyw at 1:28 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yeah, unless your wheels were right up against the curb, you could have pulled over further. Always, always, always pull over as far as possible to get out of the way.
posted by sarcasticah at 2:53 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've pulled on to the sidewalk in this situation, i've also pulled on to a traffic island, made a right i didn't need do, or driven up a corner cut/wheelchair cut on a crosswalk. My car had the ground clearance to do so, and was also huge/wide and i knew i could make room for them to get through.

Fuck the rules, i've never heard of anyone getting a ticket for letting an emergency vehicle through. Check if you're going to flatten someone on the sidewalk and then just do it if your car can clear it.

My dad drives the same way, and i learned it from him. We both have cars that can hop a curb without breaking a sweat though.

So yea, a vote in the "If you are capable of getting more out of the way safely do it, even if you have to get a bit Jason Statham"
posted by emptythought at 3:19 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

If it makes you feel any better, if I were in your situation I'd've done exactly what you did. You're not a bad person just because you didn't mount the sidewalk in an empty gesture to random passersby.
posted by winna at 3:50 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Pull over. Unless it's a divided road.
posted by JackBurden at 6:13 PM on March 26, 2015

In case it makes you feel better: maybe the biker knew the person in the ambulance, or the person the ambulance was coming for. That would account for some extra emotion and intensity that wasn't really about you.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:30 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not to piggyback, but here's a similar question that I've had a few times. The situation is I'm in the left lane of a multi lane divided road in somewhat dense traffic and an emergency vehicle is approaching from behind in the right lane. If it was in gridlock-type traffic, I would obviously move as far as possible to the left, as there is no way the emergency vehicle is going to get to the left of me, but when the traffic is such that it would be difficult but not impossible for the emergency vehicle to swerve into the left lane I am torn as to which is preferable. Move to the right with the bulk of the traffic to give as much room as possible on the far left, or move left and attempt to create space down the middle?
posted by Rock Steady at 6:39 AM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Rock Steady: Being predictable is always good. Do what the people behind you are doing--split left if they are going left. Split right if they are going right. And signal when you're doing it. If it's difficult for the truck to get into the left lane, it's probably difficult for them to stop if you swerve a different direction from everyone else. (Admittedly everyone else, including the ambulance, may be doing it wrong, but I know it happens.)

The ambulance should be coming up in the left lane in your scenario, in which case it is very simple and pulling to the right makes sense and it always works. But in the cases where they're doing something out of the norm and splitting lanes--just do your best to signal and stay out of the way.
posted by skyl1n3 at 7:56 AM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

On the motorcyclist's seemingly-disproportionate response: it's a fairly common truism among motorcycle riders that it's not if you crash, it's when you crash. Someone who feels that way probably sees an ambulance ride in their indefinite future, and might therefore be inclined to take emergency-vehicle-etiquette a little more seriously than the average motorist.
posted by box at 8:24 AM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm totally going against the grain here, it seems, but just to relate what I've been told by fire truck drivers: If you're stopped at a red light in the middle lanes and there isn't an obvious place to go DON'T MOVE. You're better off staying still and letting them find a way around you than pulling into traffic or doing something otherwise unexpected that will necessitate another emergency vehicle. If it's obvious that the vehicle is trying to get around you, facilitate that, but if you're stopped in a left-turn lane, going to the right might only succeed in blocking their through-lane, going to the left might only succeed in causing a collision.

Pay attention to what they're doing. It's more important to get an emergency vehicle through an intersection SAFELY than QUICKLY.
posted by ghostiger at 8:28 AM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

In this situation, I think either a car or a motorcycle choosing to drive onto a sidewalk (!!!) is far more dangerous and likely to lead to someone getting killed. Yes, you should pull over to the right, of course, but not if that's taking you into a pedestrian zone where you should not be driving.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:42 PM on March 27, 2015

I don't know if this matters to you or not. When I as a family member rode with my mom in the ambulance with lights and sirens, twice, I had to be in the front passenger seat, strapped in. We were on a four-lane highway. The majority of people pulled over. The few that didn't; at best, it felt disrespectful, as though they didn't care whether she lived or died.

Her first ride in the ambulance was without lights and siren. She was conscious and stable enough that they didn't need to use them, even having difficulty breathing. I asked why we didn't use them, and the paramedic said that it increases the risk of crashes, so they only use them when they really need them. If they have those lights and sirens on, the patient desperately needs them to be on and for you to get out of the way.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:48 PM on March 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

In the almost related response, I'd like to add....if you are ever in the very rural situation where the Air Ambulance helicopter is trying to land on the roadway ahead of you, PLEASE do not try and see if you can drive underneath us faster than we can land. Stop. Far away from where we are hovering above. Wait for us to land. And then when we hike over to you, ask us if you can give us a lift to where we are trying to get to, but couldn't land nearby to. But, PLEASE, don't try and drive underneath us. It is very scary what people will do when they encounter an unusual situation, and while ideally we would have police/fire blocking the roadway for us, sometimes we just have to go ahead and use long stretches of empty road and hope for some common sense from folks.
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 2:23 PM on March 28, 2015 [9 favorites]

Regarding the overly emotional motorcyclist... My dad took an ambulance ride where a matter of minutes meant the difference between life and death. That was nearly a decade ago, and just reading this thread made me tear up a bit at a few of the comments, either frustration at the gridlock situation or agreement with the idea of giving mental "gold stars" to the people who get out of the way appropriately. I suspect that anyone who's had an emotional or physical stake in an ambulance's timely passage sometime in their life takes these things a bit more personally than people who've never experienced it.
posted by vytae at 10:04 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think most of the salient points have already been made, but as an ambulance driver, I'll just say that while an ambulance can't fit through a six foot gap, it can fit through a gap that's only a bit more than eight.

Which is to say, on a normal road with 12-foot wide lanes (standard for Interstates and arterial roads), an ambulance can actually "lane split". If a car in the right lane moves slightly right—not even out of its lane, just to the extreme edge, and the car in the left lane moves slightly left, you can actually drive an ambulance right up the middle. It's tight, and it looks like it won't fit, but it will.

So it may not seem like it's important to move over, because it seems like "oh well the ambulance can't possibly fit" ... well, it's best to move over as far as you can anyway, and let the driver be the judge.

Most ambulances also have a lot of suspension travel and are more than capable of driving over curbs, if the need arises. So even if there's not enough actual driving lane, the apparatus can sometimes squeeze through. (This is particularly common if there's gridlocked traffic approaching an intersection with a turn lane. Sometimes we'll bump over a curb or onto the soft shoulder in order to get around stopped traffic and into the turn lane in order to drive up it.)

Anyway, my preference when I'm driving is for car drivers who are being approached from the rear to move towards whatever side of the road the emergency vehicle is not on. So if I'm driving up the right shoulder, if everyone slides to the left of their lane, I'll have enough room. If I'm coming up the left side, if everyone goes right, perfect. Most of the time, it's much preferable for an emergency vehicle to drive on the side of the road rather than split traffic down the middle, although if traffic behind you is obviously splitting, go with the flow. The really big no-nos are sudden, unexpected movements.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:23 PM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

If this argument didn't work for you:

You're in the back of an ambulance strapped to a gurney. You have literally minutes to get to the hospital before you die.

...let me reframe it one step further.

My wife was hit by a negligent driver as she was in the crosswalk near our house last Wednesday morning. Got an ambulance ride to the hospital, the works. Now, I wouldn't wish this on you or anybody else, but what would you want every driver to do for the ambulance that your loved one was riding in? What would you want the motorcyclists to do to the folks who weren't pulling over?

wife's OK, thanks to great medical care and people who pulled over. and yes, I am that motorcyclist.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:29 PM on March 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

I suspect that anyone who's had an emotional or physical stake in an ambulance's timely passage sometime in their life takes these things a bit more personally than people who've never experienced it.

Definitely, this - but I think also a lot of people simply never were taught by their parents/friends what the right thing to do is in those cases, or they simply don't know that every second saved is one that can be added to the next second saved which can ultimately save a life.

If anyone who is frustrated by these situations wants to see a thing of beauty, go to a military base and watch an ambulance with its lights on pass. At least in my experience, everyone pulls over, immediately, as far as they possibly can. I mean motherfucking everyone. If the lane is not cleared, they will get onto the grass, because everyone understands on a gut level that almost nothing they are possibly doing will ever be as important as the person who is heading to the hospital when every minute counts. The street opens like the parting of the Red Sea.

What to do for the future is to not let the bystander problem impact what you are doing. It doesn't matter if not a single person is doing it - you doing it starts other people thinking about doing it. Extra if you alert other drivers deliberately, but even just the act of moving reminds them that yeah, maybe they do have an extra foot of space and maybe they can pull over a little more and what do you know? The ambulance has room after all.

Please pull over for ambulances, or turn to get out of their way. I know maybe it will make you late, or slow up things later, but the ambulance really does need it. And even if this one doesn't? The next one will.
posted by corb at 9:56 AM on April 2, 2015

I pull over -- and hit the 4-way blinker or turn signal -- and usually I also stick my arm out and signal for turn or stop the way my parents did.

I'm almost always the first driver to do anything when a siren is approaching. And generally most of the other drivers notice me, and I guess become aware of the siren -- and do something useful to get themselves out of the way -- once they puzzle out why I'm doing something noticeable and odd.

Yeah, I generally drive with the window open (to hear better) and use arm signals anyway (to get noticed) in city traffic, along with using the blinkenlights.

Most drivers are just a bit more oblivious than I am and take a clue, when one is obvious.
Sirens, somehow, they mostly ignore until they see someone do something.
posted by hank at 11:55 AM on April 18, 2015

Just don't forget that out there some of the drivers are profoundly deaf. I'm only partially deaf and it still means I don't hear ambulances until almost too late.
posted by Peach at 12:50 PM on June 8, 2015

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