Bee Investigator

Modesto-area drivers: Here’s what to do when you hear a siren

Lights flashing, sirens blaring, a giant red fire engine in your rear-view mirror; it’s enough to make some drivers panic.

They stop in the middle of the street, pull over in the wrong direction and run red lights to get out of the way.

The crews at Modesto Fire Station No. 5 at McHenry and Briggsmore avenues responded to 4,200 calls last year and have seen it all. So I asked them for some reminders about yielding to emergency vehicles.

Whether it be a fire engine, a police officer or an ambulance, if it’s going Code 3, meaning lights and sirens are on, here are the basics:

▪ Always yield to the right.

Even if you are on a road and the closest shoulder is to your left, moving toward that shoulder isn’t safe because that’s where the emergency vehicle is going.

“Then I’ve got to creep up and it slows our response time,” said Engineer Chad Walker, who drives the engine for Station No. 5. “I don’t like splitting cars because I don’t know what they are going to do; at the last minute they could pull right into me and it’s my fault.”

He said people also will panic and just stop in the middle of the road in front of him.

▪ State law requires motorists to pull to the right and stop even if the emergency vehicle is in the opposing lane, unless you are on a divided road with a center median.

The exception would include roads like Briggsmore and Pelandale avenues or Highway 99.

A center turn lane is not considered a median and in fact, “If there’s heavy traffic, that fire engine is probably going to go into that center turn lane, which means they need the people who are going the opposite direction to move to the right,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Eric Parsons.

He said police officers also have issues with drivers pulling to the left, whether the officer is trying to pull them over or get around them to get to an accident. A left-side merge can lead to an accident or put an officer in an unsafe location to contact a driver.

▪ If you are already at a red light at an intersection, it’s generally best to stay put.

Capt. Darin Jesberg stressed that they do not want drivers running red lights to get out of their way.

Their engine is equipped with a device that turns most red lights to green. They might go into opposing lanes to change the light and then travel through the intersection, so they don’t need people making rash movements.

If an accident occurred, it would keep them there and another engine would have to be dispatched to the emergency to which they were responding, creating further delays.

The light-changing device doesn’t work on McHenry Avenue because it is a state highway, so depending on the emergency, Jesberg said they might stop behind traffic, turn off the sirens and wait until the light turns green naturally. At that point the sirens will start back up and motorists should proceed through the intersection and pull over on the right as soon as possible.

Jesberg said he understands that some people might not realize until the last minute that they are behind them.

“Cars are better insulated these days and stereos are better,” he said. But: “What I have noticed a lot more lately is people’s sense of urgency is (to them) a priority over our safety.”

Some people won’t move over and actually take advantage of the situation by skipping past the motorists who did pull over or by tailing the emergency vehicle.

“We’ve had people pass us while going Code 3,” Jesberg said.

State law requires motorists to stay at least 300 feet behind emergency vehicles.

While responding to a house fire on Thursday, they were delayed by drivers who were actually flocking to the area because they saw the large column of black smoke and wanted to check it out.

Consider if it was your house on fire or if you were the victim of a violent crime and needed a police officer.

Motorists who don’t yield properly “can add minutes to our response,” Walker said. “And we look at it as if we are going to our family member on every call, so we try to get there as fast and safely as possible. … When someone is not breathing, that is crucial time.”

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