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Traffic column: Why would ambulance turn off its lights?

Reader David Wright sent an e-mail about a puzzling recent experience with an ambulance.

"I'm curious about the rules governing ambulances," Wright wrote. "Several times I have watched ambulances racing up a street with their emergency lights flashing, only to stop at a light, turn off the lights, and wait for traffic with the other cars. On Nov. 25 I was waiting at a light on Bay Pines near the hospital when I saw a Sunstar ambulance approaching in my rear view mirror with its lights on.

"I edged over into the left turn lane to give him a clear lane, but instead he pulled up to the light, turned the lights off, and waited for the light to change. I was forced to back up and pull back into the regular lane behind him. Once the light changed, the ambulance simply drove at normal speeds all the way to the beach. I assumed there might be legitimate reasons for this kind of behavior. It seems to happen a lot."

The Doc has two explanations for what may have come into play regarding Wright's experience. The first is that it's important to note that all calls made to the 911 are dispatched to emergency responders as just that — emergencies. But oftentimes, what a caller may think is an urgent situation is not actually one that calls for an ambulance or other emergency vehicle to respond as such — at high speed with lights flashing and sirens blaring. But that determination can't be made in the first few seconds of a call to 911. And it shouldn't.

Anyone who has ever needed to call 911 knows that you just want help to arrive as fast as possible. No one wants to slow response time by explaining in great detail to an emergency dispatcher that the situation is dire and the reasons why. So the dispatchers must go with what we tell them that help is needed urgently. But once the ambulance is on its way, the staff at the emergency communication center can speak further with the caller and frequently may decide at that point the situation is not life-threatening. In such cases, the call is downgraded, which is why you may see an ambulance suddenly turn off its lights and silence its sirens, and yes, even stop at a restaurant.

The other scenario is that another emergency unit is closer to the address and can make it there faster. So an ambulance may be on its way to a call only to be told that another unit is already almost there.

It's helpful for the driving public to understand that certain protocols are in place and though the behavior of an emergency vehicle may not make sense, there are many reasons why we see what we see.

And while we're at it, the Doc suggests that everyone remember to turn their car stereos down, stay alert and yield the right of way to emergency vehicles without delay. Chances are that if you see the lights flashing and hear the siren's blare, someone is in serious trouble.

And to all the emergency responders out there who put themselves on the line every day for the rest of us: You are appreciated.

• • •

Reader Gerry Lembke sent us a note regarding last week's mention of the daily traffic jam at the northbound Interstate 275 exit that feeds traffic onto 31st Street S near Gibbs High School. Traffic backs up sometimes onto the interstate at peak times and some drivers are executing dangerous maneuvers in order to avoid the back-up at the intersection. Lemke says that the problem didn't exist a few years and the reason it does now is that the lanes have been reduced from three to two.

"Had they left the two left-turn lanes, many more cars could turn left onto 31st Street, minimizing the back-up. I suggest they reinstitute the two left-turn lanes. Police could then cite stupid drivers who get into accidents because they don't know how to safely make a left turn into the northbound 31st Street lanes."

Please e-mail Dr. Delay at to share your traffic concerns, comments and questions. Check out Dr. Delay's Bay News 9 blog at to read more about commuting issues.

Traffic column: Why would ambulance turn off its lights? 12/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 15, 2008 3:16pm]
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