Have you ever been driving down the road, minding your own business, when you suddenly see emergency lights flashing in your view mirror? Your first thought may be, “Oh, not today!” And when the police cruiser quickly passes by, you realize that you weren’t doing anything wrong, she is headed somewhere else, and today you won’t get a ticket. What a relief! Well, the other day, I was driving on a four-lane road in Kennewick and fire trucks and ambulances were coming from the opposite direction and, for the first time, I wondered if I needed to pull over and stop for the oncoming emergency vehicles. I mean, I knew that I needed to pull over to the side, but did I need to stop on such a big road?
Luckily, some fool in front of me slammed on his brakes, nearly causing an accident, and I quickly stopped my car as well as my train of thought. But when I got home I had to look it up. Were we really supposed to stop? It seemed pretty dangerous to stop like we did, and not just because the guy in front of me didn’t know how to drive.
Well, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, drivers who fail to yield the right of way to approaching emergency vehicles or who fail to stop can be fined $500 or more. (And you can expect to pay double for failing to yield to or move away from emergency vehicles already stopped on the side of the road.) Public opinion seems to be divided as to what the letter of the law is when it comes to yielding right of way to emergency vehicles. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t help much either.
The Revised Code of Washington, Section 46.61.210 states:
(1) Upon the immediate approach of an authorized emergency vehicle making use of audible and visual signals meeting the requirements of RCW 46.37.190, or of a police vehicle properly and lawfully making use of an audible signal only the driver of every other vehicle shall yield the right-of-way and shall immediately drive to a position parallel to, and as close as possible to, the right-hand edge or curb of the roadway clear of any intersection and shall stop and remain in such position until the authorized emergency vehicle has passed, except when otherwise directed by a police officer.
(2) This section shall not operate to relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons using the highway.
The phrase “immediate approach” is more than a little confusing; however, the general consensus seems to be that drivers should stop for emergency vehicles, regardless of the number of lanes, unless the road is divided and the driver is the other side of a barrier from the emergency vehicle. The intent of the law is to require drivers to pull over so the emergency vehicles have plenty of room to maneuver without causing another emergency, and it appears that if there is a divider then “immediate approach” does not apply. So, when in doubt, pull over when you see lights flashing unless you are on the opposite side of a divided road.
The drivers of emergency vehicles are also supposed to drive with regard for the safety of the other drivers, regardless of direction, and should yield the right of way as may be reasonable under the circumstances.