Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Why the Lightning would consider trading Jonathan Drouin

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — This summer, the Lightning could trade one of its most dynamic young players ever.

    Wing Jonathan Drouin could be the only piece that Tampa Bay has to acquire a badly needed top-tier defenseman.
  2. Ryan Hunter-Reay running strong as he seeks a second Indianapolis 500 title

    Auto racing

    Ryan Hunter-Reay isn't a big jewelry fan.

    Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won Indy in 2014, is a contender for a second title in today’s 101st running. He qualified 10th, had the third-fastest practice lap and his team is looking strong.
  3. As Trump's overseas trip ends, crisis grows at home (w/video)


    President Donald Trump headed home Saturday to confront a growing political and legal threat, as his top aides tried to contain the fallout from reports that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is a focus of investigations into possible collusion between Russia and the president's campaign and transition teams.

    President Donald Trump waves as he exits Marine One on Saturday at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, Italy. After a nine-day trip overseas, the president is returning to Washington.
  4. Tributes pour in for Zbigniew Brzezinski, an 'influential voice' in politics (w/video)


    WASHINGTON — Well before he went to the White House in 1977, Jimmy Carter was impressed by the views of foreign policy expert Zbigniew Brzezinski. That Carter immediately liked the Polish-born academic advising his campaign was a plus.

    Foreign policy expert Zbigniew Brzezinski died Friday.
  5. One year after deaths, Sunset Music Festival kicks off with emphasis on water and security

    Public Safety

    TAMPA — Before the beat drops, or even builds, you hear Steve-O.

    "If you don't get water you're lame!"

    "Hey! Free water! Come on!"

    Steve "Steve-O" Raymond motions to guests making the line to grab free water bottle at the entrance of the Sunset Music Festival on the grounds of the Raymond James Stadium parking lot in Tampa. ( LUIS SANTANA   |   Times)