Traffic Tip Tuesday: What should I do when an emergency vehicle is running code?

This week we had a request to discuss what to do when an emergency vehicle is approaching with its emergency equipment activated.  In other words, “running code,” with lights and sirens.  Law enforcement, fire departments and medical units utilize emergency equipment for a variety of reasons; the one we will focus on today is when emergency vehicles need to respond to a critical incident. We will cover what to do during a traffic stop in later articles.

Emergency personnel are bound by several laws and policies when running code. Each agency will also have its own policies and procedures regarding running code. For Farmington police, there has to be a significant risk of life (critical incident) for us to do so.  Some of these situations involve motor vehicle collisions where injury is life threatening, fights where weapons are present, aiding an officer in distress, to assist in ending vehicle pursuits, robberies in progress, fires, medical calls and active shooters. We may run code for other reasons, but those are few and far between.

I’ve seen all kinds of crazy things during my tenure in law enforcement; it’s as though drivers forget their driving training when approached by an emergency vehicle running code. I’ve seen  drivers pull into the left median, make sudden left turns (into the path of the emergency vehicle), lock up their brakes and come to a sudden stop (directly in front of the emergency vehicle) without pulling to the right and simply ignore the emergency vehicle altogether, essentially creating a road block.

So, what should I do as a driver when I see an emergency vehicle approaching? There are three directions you could be approached by an emergency vehicle: from behind, from the side or from the front. The following addresses each situation and provides information on how to respond.

Approached from behind

  • When an emergency vehicle is approaching from the rear, slow down and pull over as far to the right hand side of the road as practical, given the situation and roadway, and come to a stop until the emergency vehicle passes.
  • After the emergency vehicle passes, resume normal driving.

Approached from the side (intersections)

  • Slow down, pull as far to the right hand side as practical and come to a stop.
  • Wait until the emergency vehicle has passed then resume normal driving.

Approached from the front

  • Slow down, pull as far to the right hand side as practical and come to a stop.
  • Wait until the emergency vehicle has passed then resume normal driving.

Occasionally emergency vehicles will need to counter-flow. That means driving in the opposing lanes of travel (e.g northbound in the southbound lanes). This is done as a last resort during heavy traffic.  If this is happening, refer to number three.

The state statute that tells us what to do is:
66-7-332. Operation of vehicles on approach of authorized emergency vehicles.

A. Upon the immediate approach of an authorized emergency vehicle displaying flashing emergency lights or when the driver is giving audible signal by siren, exhaust whistle or bell, 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 clear of any intersection and shall stop and remain in that position until the authorized emergency vehicle has passed except when otherwise directed by a police officer.

B. Upon approaching a stationary authorized emergency vehicle displaying flashing emergency lights, unless otherwise directed, the driver of a vehicle shall:

(1)   if reasonably safe to do so, drive in a lane not adjacent to where the authorized emergency vehicle is stopped, decrease the speed of the vehicle to a speed that is reasonable and prudent under the circumstances and proceed with caution; or

(2)   if it is not reasonably safe to drive in a lane not adjacent to where the authorized emergency vehicle is stopped, decrease the speed of the vehicle to a speed that is reasonable and prudent under the circumstances, proceed with caution and be prepared to stop.

C. This section shall not operate to relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive and park with due regard for the safety of all persons using the highway.

History: 1953 Comp., § 64-7-332, enacted by Laws 1978, ch. 35, § 436; 2001, ch. 59, § 1; 2005, ch. 10, § 1.

Responding code is one of the most dangerous things we do in law enforcement, and we don’t do it for frivolous reasons. We respond code for a specific reason – to save lives or rescue people. We try to mitigate the risks as much as possible; providing educational information to the public is part of that mitigation.

Next time an emergency vehicle is “running code,”  please follow the rules outlined above, after all, the person we are trying to save, might be one of your loved ones.

Snowbarger, Martin

Martin Snowbarger has been a law enforcement officer for 18 years. He’s worked for the Farmington Police Department for 15 years and in Raton, NM for three years. Officer Snowbarger has been with FPD’s Traffic Division since 2003 and has been a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician and Traffic Collision Reconstructionist for 11 years.

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