MOUNT VERNON — Each year, hundreds of police officers and firefighters are killed in preventable traffic accidents, accidents often caused by drivers who failed to yield the right of way while a fire engine, police cruiser or ambulance is speeding to an emergency.
“Probably the biggest problem that I encounter is I’ll be running hot and you get behind someone and they don’t get over,” said Garic Warner, an 11-year veteran of the Ohio State Highway Patrol who patrols in Knox and Morrow counties.
He believes drivers with radios turned up and distracted drivers may be more common than drivers with a blatant disregard for the law. He said drivers who attempt to pull out of the way, but do so in a dangerous place, are also a hazard.
“Some pull over and they pull into a bad spot, like the crest of a hill,” Warner said, adding that he then has to use the public address system on his cruiser to direct the driver to move out of the way and pull over in a different place. This, he said, can cost precious time in an emergency.
Mount Vernon police officers also encounter drivers who fail to yield to cruisers traveling at high rates of speed.
“We probably run into that more than the county guys in the rural areas,” said Mount Vernon Patrolman Brian Weiser, a 12-year veteran of the department. “With rush hour traffic it can be exciting to try to get across town. It does get challenging sometimes. Everybody’s in such a hurry anymore.”
Weiser said most police calls do not require lights and sirens. Crimes in progress, active domestic disputes and injury accidents are examples of when officers use lights and sirens.
Although maneuvering a speeding police cruiser through thick traffic is a challenge, trying to navigate a 20-ton fire engine can be even more harrowing.
Mount Vernon Fire Capt. Joe Jurkowitz said he and his crew are aware of the traffic dangers they face from other drivers when responding in an emergency.
“We see it on a regular basis,” said Jurkowitz, a veteran firefighter and paramedic. “Probably the biggest two things that we see are people running red lights and people that are in the left turn lanes [who fail to yield.]”
Because fire trucks and squads will try to go around traffic to the left, he said drivers in the turn lane pose a special hazard.
“The safest thing when you see us, is to pull to the right,” Jurkowitz said, adding that fire trucks weigh thousands of pounds and are loaded with 1,000 gallons of water. “Don’t try to beat us; it’s like trying to beat a train.”
Brent Spearman, Central Ohio Joint Fire District firefighter, said high speeds on country roads can make driving an engine, while trying to dodge drivers who pull into their path or do not yield, perilous. Like the police officers, firefighters said distracted drivers in a hurry are common.
“I think that they’re doing their own thing in their cars and they don’t realize our trucks don’t stop on a dime, which puts our lives and theirs, as well as the lives of others, in danger,” Spearman said.
Weiser said he often sees drivers talking on cell phones, putting on makeup, or doing other things which distract them from their driving.
“Your job when you are driving is to pay attention to your driving,” he said.
Larry Schunke, Fredericktown assistant fire chief, said that while driving a squad to a car wreck last summer, a driver on Ohio 13 pulled directly in front of him.
“I yelled to the guys in back to hold on because I thought we were going to get hit,” he recalled.
Schunke said he was stunned someone would pull out in front of an emergency squad with lights and siren going, risking the lives of all involved.
Warner said drivers who do the unexpected give first responders nervous moments behind the wheel.
“There’s been times when I’ve been running hot [with lights and siren] before and you expect people to pull over to the right; and then they pull onto the median or to the left instead, and then I’ll have to go over quickly to the right,” he said.
Warner said vehicles who do not obey the law requiring drivers to yield to the far lane around cruisers which are stopped for crashes or traffic stops, have injured friends and colleagues. He knows a trooper who had both legs broken when he was struck while working at a crash.
Weiser said police officers take the responsibility of driving with care, especially at higher speeds, extremely seriously.
“We can be held accountable,” he said. “We must use due regard for the safety of all persons and property on the road.”
Many drivers do not realize that, safety risks aside, there are legal consequences to not obeying traffic laws regarding yielding to emergency vehicles.
“It’s an arrestable offense,” said Weiser. “If you fail to yield to an emergency vehicle, it’s a fourth-degree misdemeanor for the first offense.”
Bill Smith, Mount Vernon law director, who prosecutes individuals for such misdemeanors in Knox County, said the Ohio Revised Code and Mount Vernon traffic code both require drivers to immediately pull to the right and yield the right of way to emergency vehicles using lights and sirens. Drivers must remain stopped until the emergency vehicle passes.
Warner and Weiser agree drivers may be more careful yielding to law enforcement vehicles than fire service vehicles, because they fear a ticket. However, if a firefighter or medic sees a driver create a hazard by not yielding to their vehicle, they can report to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Smith said the law enforcement agency can then investigate the alleged illegal driving, and issue the appropriate citation.