July 8, 2013

Pull to the right

Heeding move-over law could save lives

Rachel Brown

— Ernie Verhine has seen all the typical bad reactions.

When the emergency medical technician for Hamilton Emergency Services turns on his ambulance lights and sirens, there are some drivers who heed the signals and pull to the right as required by state law, but there are also many who don’t.

“We’ll have them move to the left, stop on a hill, in front of us. I think most of them think it’s a state law they have to wait until they get to a curve or a hill to pull over,” he joked. “It’s stressful.”

Tony Miller, a paramedic for Hamilton, said it’s apparently stressful for other drivers on the road, too. Many of them, he said, don’t seem to know what to do when an emergency vehicle approaches. State law requires that whenever possible, drivers to pull to the right and stop when on an undivided highway. On divided highways, drivers must pull to the right and slow down to let an emergency vehicle pass.

Georgia’s move-over law also dictates that when possible, motorists must move over a lane when an emergency vehicle with its lights activated is on the side of the road. The law was intended to help save the lives of law enforcement officers and other emergency workers. Some officers and emergency workers have been killed or injured by vehicles that got too close.

Ambulance drivers are taught to pass on the left, Verhine said, so when drivers pull to the left to let the ambulance pass it sometimes means they have nowhere to go. At other times, it just makes navigation more dangerous, he said. Driving in emergency mode, Verhine said, is “probably one of the most stressful parts of the job.”

Many drivers don’t hear the sirens because they have their radios turned up loudly or are dealing with other distractions, Verhine said. Looking in the rearview mirror often enough to be aware of your surroundings can fix that, Miller said.

“That’s why ‘ambulance’ is spelled backwards on the hood, so you’ll recognize it in your rearview mirror,” Miller said.

What about those times when drivers can’t pull over? Miller said most emergency responders understand that and proceed accordingly. For instance, they won’t drive closely behind someone who has no place to pull over, they’ll just ride behind them until there’s a chance to pass, he said. Plus, added Verhine, many times if the driver will just slow down that can give an ambulance a chance to pass more easily.

There’s perhaps no way to accurately determine whether other motorists’ decisions directly impact a patient’s outcome, but one thing is for sure. Not moving out of the way can slow response times. In Whitfield County, every ambulance typically has a paramedic on board who is able to begin potentially life-saving treatment the moment the ambulance arrives. The gravity of the situation is a concept that some drivers apparently don’t grasp. Verhine said he recently worked with a partner to carry a young child for treatment to a hospital in Chattanooga. As they passed one woman in her vehicle, she flipped them off.

“I think if they all thought we might be about to pull in their driveway, they would pull over a little quicker,” Miller said.