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. Forecast: First day of fall brings more showers, humidity to Tampa Bay


    More moisture will filter into the Tampa Bay area on Friday, the official start of fall, allowing for higher rain chances through the day and beginning half of the weekend.

    Tampa Bay's 7 day forecast. [WTSP]
  2. Video shows Polk child-care workers berating autistic child


    WINTER HAVEN — Police are searching for two childcare workers after a Snapchat video surfaced of them berating, taunting and throwing a backpack at an 8-year-old autistic child.

    Police are searching for two childcare workers - Kaderrica Smith, 26, and Alexis Henderson, 20 - after a Snapchat video surfaced of them berating, taunting and throwing a backpack at an 8-year-old Autistic child in Winter Haven. [Winter Haven Police Department]
  3. Trigaux: Tampa Bay household income tops $50,000 but still makes us look poor

    Personal Finance

    The good news is Tampa Bay's median household income finally crawled above $50,000 last year. The bad news is that figure — officially $51,115 by new U.S. Census Bureau data — still puts the Tampa Bay region as the poorest of the nation's 25 largest metro areas.

    Tampa Bay still has the lowest median household income among the 25 most populous metro areas, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
  4. Oh, Florida! Irma's gone, but she left behind plenty of lessons for us


    I don't want to make light of the misery and death that Hurricane Irma inflicted on Florida this month. A lot of it was ugly, and some of it was downright criminal. We saw greed and pettiness on …

    A Fort Myers woman who'd recently undergone a double-organ transplant painted a sign that said, "HOT SINGLE FEMALE SEEKS SEXY LINEMAN TO ELECTRIFY HER LIFE" and sure enough, she got her power turned back on. [Photo from video]
  5. Florida education news: Makeup days, accountability, charter schools and more


    MAKEUP DAYS: The Pasco County school district alters the daily schedule of 11 schools to make up teaching time missed because of Hurricane Irma, avoiding the …

    With students back in school after Hurricane Irma, schools across Florida begin scheduling makeup days for missed classroom time.