Don’t move; emergency vehicles can get around you

Q: If one is stopped at a traffic light on a street with a middle divider, what are you supposed to do when an emergency vehicle, sirens blaring, approaches from behind? To clear the way, you would have to run the red light.

A: The law, of course, is clear on how to handle a red light in a normal driving situation. However, there’s no section of the law titled, “What to do at a red light when emergency vehicles come up behind you.”

At intersections that don’t have a divider between travel directions, the responder will probably go around you instead of waiting for you to get out of their way. Also, when traffic signals are equipped with the requisite sensors, emergency response vehicles can change the light to green in their direction and red in all other directions. In that case, you’ll get the green light too, pull forward and to the right, and the emergency responder will be on their way.

What do you do though, if you are the one at the red light with the flashing lights and siren behind you?

The law says that when an emergency vehicle approaches, drivers are required to pull as close as possible to the right-hand side of the road, clear of any intersection, and stop. There’s also the law that states that drivers are to comply with any lawful direction from a police officer or firefighter who has the authority to direct traffic.

Does that mean drivers should interpret the siren and lights as a lawful direction and move out of the way? Before you respond, let me give you one more piece of information. I said the law doesn’t answer this question directly, but it turns out that the Washington Driver Guide does. This handbook is self-described as a “guide that outlines the state’s rules for Washington’s roads and highways.”

In the paragraph about yielding to emergency vehicles, it says, “If you are in an intersection, drive through the intersection before you pull over. If the light is red, stay where you are.”

I ran this by a state trooper, who agreed. He allowed that if you’re able to move over slightly without pulling into the intersection that would be OK, but otherwise said, “Stay where you are. We are trained to figure it out.” He pointed out that if you pull into the intersection it’s possible that you could be involved in a collision. If you have a red light, there’s a good chance that cross-traffic has a green light. In an emergency, even if it’s not yours, take a breath, reign in the fight-or-flight response, and make the safe choice.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly traffic safety column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.