Requesting The Right-of-Way

I encountered a video recently of a family crossing the street in front of an emergency vehicle with its lights and sirens operating. There are several interesting points to the video. One is the audible exasperation of the citizen filming the scene. We encounter these situations so often in the course of our work that we often forget how ridiculous they sometimes look to the uninitiated.

The second interesting point is that, after the emergency vehicle stops (to avoid running over the family) a person still waiting on the sidewalk decides it must be OK for him to walk in front of the ambulance as well. We see this behavior frequently. Once one person decides to disregard the ambulance, it gives silent permission to others to do the same. It’s another form of the litter begets litter phenomenon. One person does the right thing and others tend to do the same. One person does the wrong thing and, well… get ready to pick up some littler.

Take a minute to watch the video and then I’d like to make a point.

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For those of us who operate emergency vehicles, I think the big take home of this video is to always request the right-of-way; don’t demand it. Our lights and sirens only afford us the ability to request that others yield. They don’t give us the right to demand that others avoid us.

For what it’s worth, this medic does a pretty good job of slowing down and stopping for the family. He doesn’t blare his air horn (though it must have been tempting). He doesn’t make any erratic moves to get around the family (which may have endangered the citizen on the sidewalk). He doesn’t yell or make gestures out the window. He yields and then he proceed. (Excuse me for assuming gender.)

He requested the right of way and the citizen said no. Then he moves on. There’s no need to get self-righteous about it. If a law enforcement officer is present, they may be cited, but that isn’t our job.

Let me put it another way. When operating with our lights and sirens on, we are never permitted to drive in a manner that requires the other vehicle or person to respond ideally. It can be frustrating from the front seat of the emergency vehicle, but we have to leave people the option to safely do the wrong thing. If the citizen does the wrong thing and we hit them, we are (most likely) at fault. It’s our job to keep the public safe even from the front seat of our medic unit.


  1. Thank you for making that point. Too often I’ve been assigned a partner who drives as if everyone around is not only obligated, but expected to follow the rules they learned, ostensibly, in driver ed. But they simply don’t. Some are ignorant, some are showing off, some simply panic and know they made an error. The commonality is that none of them are worth our scorn, frustration or hostility. They’re simply part of the scenery.

  2. I agree 100%. Like the first-day EMT class phrase “You can’t help anyone if you are the second patient”, it applies to driving Emergency Traffic as well. You are not going to be able to aid the injured/ill patient you are headed to if your ambulance is disabled due to a collision or your over-aggressive driving causes a MVC and now you have new patients to attend to.
    Without going into the discussion of the over-use of Emergency Traffic responses TO the incident, let alone the abundance of over-use to the hospital, the bottom line is this: it rarely makes a life-saving difference to drive demanding the public yield to your apparatus. Yes we all know what the civilian public is SUPPOSED to do encountering an Emergency Vehicle, but humans are just that – human.
    I may be mandated by dispatch priority to drive Emergency Traffic, but that doesn’t change the approach to the way I drive, just the flashy colors and noisemakers.

  3. As my little vehicle operation saying is, “You can break the laws of man, but not the laws of physics.”

  4. Anonymous says:

    As the lights were red, the family had right of way anyway, so the correct thing to do was to stop as the ESV driver did.

    It is no different to any red light situation,- you approach on caution and proceed if the coast is clear……………common sense really!

  5. Anonymous says:

    this is an outstanding post. you are spot on.

  6. It makes absolutely no sense to block the progress of an emergency vehicle that has its emergency lights and sirens going. While pedestrians do have the right away an emergency vehicle is used for emergencies after all and blocking on not only delays progress but could worsen a situation.