This story is true. I’ll tell it to you exactly as it happened. It happened about 10 years ago. After the incident, I drove away and didn’t think too much more about it. I may have never thought about it again if I hadn’t read a story over at EMS1 about a medic who used his lights and sirens to pull over a bad driver and berate her on the side of the road. The medic has now sat before a review board and will most likely face a suspension.
Before I tell this story, let me make it clear that I believe that this guy acted improperly and I am not attempting to justify his actions. But it did get me thinking. When is it OK to use your lights and sirens outside of the context of a medical emergency?
And then I thought about John Cortez and I…and the drunk dude.
John and I were driving down a quiet three lane road that ran through a commercial area in our district when we came upon a mid-sized four-door vehicle driving slowly and swerving back and forth across the road. You may have seen the pattern before. The car would slowly drift across the road until it began to run off the road and then the driver would over-correct and come back onto the road, drifting to the other side and then repeating the pattern.
While we were both fairly certain that the driver was intoxicated, I don’t think either of us ruled out the possibility that there could have been some other sort of medical issue responsible for the drivers erratic driving. We fell back to a position about fifty yards behind the swerving vehicle and radioed for police assistance. We reported our location and direction and continued to follow and monitor the situation.
After a few minutes a car approached from behind and passed us and the swerving vehicle. The swerving vehicle came close to striking the passing vehicle as it drove by to the left. That’s when we decided to turn the lights on. We turned on our overhead lights and the standard code-three lighting ensemble. We left the siren off. Our intention wasn’t to elicit a certain behavior out of the driver in front of us. We were more concerned with alerting passing drivers to the possible danger on the road ahead.
Shortly after turning on the lights our swerving driver started moving to the right side of the road. He continued off the road and struck a guard-rail at low speed and came to a stop. I got on the radio and alerted dispatch to the accident location. We gave a full description of the vehicle and then both climbed out of our rig to approach the driver from either side of the vehicle.
Let me clarify, because I’m sure you’re probably thinking it, none of us can predict the future and it’s impossible to say what would have happened if we had left our light off. But if I had to guess, I would say that our lights probably caused the driver to drive into the guard rail. While I think he probably would have crashed eventually, I don’t think he would have crashed at that moment. I don’t know if we did him a favor or a disservice contributing to his crash at that place and that time. It’s impossible to tell.
I’m also well aware that we could have influenced him to do something even more dangerous. He could have speed up. He could have entered oncoming traffic and hurt or killed someone else. We could not predict all the possibilities when we switched on those lights. We had to make a judgment call and we went with the lights.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Back car-side with our erratic driver…
I was the first one to speak to the driver. I don’t recall my exact words but I know that I introduced myself and that I made it clear that I and my partner were medical personnel. I offered our help. While speaking to the driver I could smell a strong odor of metabolized alcohol on the his breath. I asked politely if we could place him in the back of our medic unit and check him out. He gladly accepted.
In the back of my rig, I checked the driver’s blood sugar and gave him a thorough head-to-toe assessment. During my assessment, our local police department arrived on scene and my partner briefed him on what we had seen and what we had done. I escorted the intoxicated driver out of the back of my rig and into the custody of our local police officer.
Looking back now, I have questions about what John and I did that day. I think you can make many intelligent arguments both for and against several of our actions. I could detail them for you, but I’m more interested in how you feel.
Did John and I do the right thing? If not, what should we have done instead? When is it OK to turn on the lights or use the siren outside of the context of a medical emergency?