On any given day on any Texas road, you can be driving along and minding your own business when you suddenly hear sirens wailing and it causes a slight panic. Are they targeting you? You look up at the rearview mirror and see emergency lights flashing. There is an emergency somewhere, so what do you do? Acting reflexively and swerving with panic is not an option of course, but what should you do?
The Best Thing to Do: Be Careful
The first thing to remember is that there is an emergency. The emergency vehicles who are responding simply don’t have the time to obey the same traffic rules as the rest of us. And when their lights are flashing and their sirens are blaring, lives are usually at stake. The drivers of emergency vehicles are under legal obligation to drive as safely as possible, but everyone else on the road also has some responsibility, too. Over the past 20 years, the leading cause of law enforcement officer fatalities has been traffic accidents, so we all have to do better. Here are some tips for being as safe as possible around any type of emergency vehicle.
- Right-of-Way– Keep in mind, emergency vehicles of all types take precedence when the siren is blaring and the lights are flashing. When that happens, red and green light signals at intersections, yield signs, and the usual etiquette at stop signs and in roundabouts become less important than the police car, fire truck or ambulance trying to negotiate the roadway.
- Texas MoveOver/Slow Down Law– Texas law requires that all drivers yield to police and fire vehicles and ambulances when they can do so safely. Drivers are required to move to the right and allow the emergency vehicle to pass. In addition, they are required to move out of the lane closest to the lane in which an emergency vehicle is stopped. When no other lane is available, like on a two-lane road, the driver is required to slow down significantly. On a road where the posted speed limit is 25 miles per hour or less, for example, it’s necessary to slow down to 5 miles per hour. (Side note: these rules also apply to TxDOT road workers.)
- When the emergency vehicle approaches from behind– The first thing a driver should do when they hear a siren approaching from behind it to look at their rearview and side mirrors to see where the vehicle is. Again, drivers should avoid making a knee-jerk move to the right immediately. Instead, when there is an opening on the right side, hopefully on the shoulder, start your turn signal and watch closely for other vehicles, bicycles or pedestrians before you start slowly gliding to your right, as long as the path is clear.
- When the emergency approaches from the front– It’s a little trickier to know what to do when the sirens and lights are coming from the front, because they’ll usually be in the oncoming lanes. The general rule is to pull over to your right and turn on your hazard lights. The reason for this is simple; sometimes, if a police car, fire truck or ambulance finds itself in congestion, they often will drive on the wrong side of the road to get to the emergency faster.
- When it’s not possible to move over– When there simply isn’t enough room to move over, slow down as much as possible and drive with extreme caution. Drivers around you will follow your lead, so you can all work together to avoid making a bad situation worse.
- Follow at a safe distance– When you find yourself driving behind an emergency vehicle with a siren and/or flashing lights, tailgating is always a bad idea. Always make sure you are well behind the vehicle at all times. According to Texas law, drivers who are closer than 500 feet from the back of a fire truck or ambulance are violating traffic laws and may be subject to a ticket and a substantial fine.
- Don’t ever try to pass an emergency vehicle with lights flashing– This is a very dangerous thing to try, and it’s also illegal and could earn you a ticket, even if you manage to avoid an accident. If you cause an accident, it will be even worse for you.
If you are doing everything right and you find yourself at the side of the road as the emergency vehicle passes, you should stop and wait until the emergency vehicle has passed you, regardless of the direction. Once it has passed and is a safe distance away, start your turn signal and slowly merge safely back into traffic. This is easy to do on most surface roads, but a little more difficult on the highway. However, if you do so slowly and carefully, you’ll be back up and running at full speed in no time.