by Lawrence Herzog

Arnold Puff feared the worst when he heard the unmistakable sound of tires sliding over ice. Seconds later, an out-of-control vehicle slammed into the stranded Jeep that the CAA Saskatchewan Emergency Road Service (ERS) driver had come to help, injuring the occupants and pushing his own truck seven or eight metres down the highway. Puff managed to escape injury, but only just.

Visibility was unlimited with no hills or curves at the site of the April 2003 collision on Highway 11, just outside Regina. In addition to his rotating beacons and work lights, Puff had followed CAA Saskatchewan safety procedures by placing seven road flares along the 100 metres of highway leading up to the scene, to secure the lane in which he was working. But the protective measures weren’t enough.

Having had his tow truck hit once before when he’d stopped to help a stranded motorist, Puff concedes his confidence has been shaken. “When I have to go out on the highway now, I’m always looking,” he says. “There’s a need for a major attitude adjustment when it comes to speed. People just don’t slow down and they don’t think anything bad will happen. But it most certainly will, and tow truck drivers can attest to that. There are many other stories just like mine.”

Saskatchewan General Insurance (SGI) reports that between January 1993 and December 2002 there were seven traffic collisions in Saskatchewan involving emergency vehicles (police, fire trucks and ambulances) parked on the side of a provincial highway. Those collisions claimed one life and caused one injury. But what the statistics don’t reveal are the collisions involving roadside assistance vehicles, as well as close calls – and CAA Saskatchewan ERS drivers say they’ve had plenty.

“It’s not unusual to hear of a close call every week,” says Doug Berner, CAA Saskatchewan’s Regina fleet manager. Such stories exemplify the hazards faced daily by all emergency vehicle drivers, as well as those providing emergency road services. “Yellow flashing lights don’t get noticed by many motorists,” observes Berner. “We believe some of the problem is motorists not recognizing potential hazards. And some of it may well be motorists not knowing what to do.”

How motorists should behave around standard emergency vehicles is stated in the law. Under a 2001 amendment to the provincial Highway Traffic Act, all drivers must slow to 60 km/hr when passing emergency vehicles stopped on the roadside with lights flashing. In April 2003, Ontario became the second province, after Saskatchewan, to institute similar legislation. The definition of an emergency vehicle in the provincial legislation includes city police and RCMP vehicles, fire trucks and ambulances.

The Saskatchewan Highway Traffic Act change was met with support from several provincial organizations, including CAA Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Association of Fire Chiefs, the RCMP, the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police and the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP). Offenders pay a fine of $140, plus $2 for every kilometre over the 60 km/hr speed limit; if a driver is over 90 km/hr, the fine increases to $4 for every kilometre over the legal limit. These are the same fines levied when motorists illegally pass highway workers.

Still, legislation alone isn’t enough to make the roads safer for emergency and roadside assistance personnel, which is why SGI is working to increase driver awareness through billboards, radio and television spots. Emergency vehicles – fire engines, police vehicles and ambulances – have the right of way when displaying flashing lights and using sirens, or when flashing lights alone.

Still, we’ve all seen motorists who don’t yield to emergency vehicles, thereby endangering the lives of others. Emergency vehicle drivers know that turning on the lights and siren increases the stress of everyone nearby on the road and triggers myriad reactions. Some drivers panic and just stop, while others try to ride the wave by taking advantage of the speedy passage afforded by an emergency vehicle.

CAA Saskatchewan ERS personnel frequently face impatient motorists. “We would like the motoring public to understand that we are working as quickly as we can,” says CAA’s Doug Berner. “They’ve just got to be patient.”

That patience can mean the difference between life and death. After all, the next 911 call could be for you or someone you know. “It’s not going to take that much time out of your day to just slow down and be cautious as you proceed by our drivers, or by any emergency vehicle worker,” says Berner. “But it could mean the world of difference to them and those they are assisting.”

Lights, Sirens . . . Action?

What to do when you encounter an emergency vehicle

  • CAA Saskatchewan recommends that when approached by an emergency vehicle with its lights flashing or sirens engaged, drivers should immediately drive as close as possible to the right edge of the roadway, slow down and stop (if possible), and not enter the next intersection until the emergency vehicle has passed. The only exception is if a traffic officer gives other directions. On one-way streets, drivers should pull over to the nearest curb and stop.

  • At an intersection, drivers must stop and let the emergency vehicle through. Emergency vehicles always have the right of way.
  • If drivers are waiting at a red light, they should hold their position so the emergency vehicle can go around them.
  • When an emergency vehicle is stopped on the side of the highway with its lights flashing, drivers must slow to 60 km/hr when passing, unless they are on the opposite side of a divided highway. Failure to slow to 60 km/hr could result in a minimum fine of $140.
  • If drivers arrive at a crash scene, they should slow down and give emergency workers plenty of room. Drivers should remember their responsibility to operate a vehicle safely and resist the urge to stop and stare, causing further hazard.
  • When approaching a roadside assistance vehicle with amber flashing lights, slow down and manoeuvre carefully around. Be on the watch for the operator and other people involved.

Sources – CAA Saskatchewan, RCMP, SGI.

A version of this feature originally appeared in Westworld Saskatchewan, CAA Saskatchewan’s magazine to its members.

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