Imagine you're stuck in bumper-to-bumper, side mirror-to-side mirror traffic as most of us urban motorists have gotten used to on a frustratingly daily basis.
You just want to get to home with minimal fuss. You're probably even listening to your favorite station or favorite playlist to help kill the time, or perhaps even prevent the temptation to open your phone. And then, before you know it, an ambulance -lights flashing and sirens blaring- comes up behind you.
It's a common situation, but quite frankly, it's still tricky to respond to. Do you stop? Do you move to the left? Do you move to the right? Do you try to flash your lights at the guy ahead to try to get him or her to move ahead?
So what are we actually supposed to do if an ambulance or other emergency vehicles like police cars or fire trucks comes up behind you?
Before we even tackle that, the key concept we need to understand is right of way. To put it simply, right of way determines which vehicle has the priority to go ahead, and tells all other vehicles to yield and make way to let the vehicle pass. The reason is simple: the presumption is that the crews of these vehicles -be it paramedics, firemen, or police officers are responding to an emergency. And in these situations, time is of the essence.
But to get a more specific set of guidelines regarding emergency vehicles, we spoke to Gus of Lifeline ambulance service, a private ambulance service operating in select areas of the Philippines.
More importantly, Gus shared with us some guidelines as to what you should do if an emergency vehicle came up behind or near you on the road.
1. Be aware
It goes without saying: you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times while on the road.
One of the biggest causes of problems on the road is when drivers aren't particularly alert of what's going on around them. It happens when drivers don't check their mirrors, don't look around, or are playing music with the volume way too high. Toss in the temptation to reach for a mobile phone whenever a notification pops up, and it doesn't take a subject matter expert or a focus group to say that it's just plain dangerous.
Some would say that it's impossible to not notice an ambulance behind you when its sirens are blaring, but take it from me: you can be oblivious if your music is loud enough. When I was just starting to drive, I typically had the volume way too high, and it didn't help that Linkin Park was one of my favorites. I couldn't hear the ambulance behind me, and given that it was daytime, you don't notice the lights as much as you would if it was night time.
Pay attention to your surroundings, don't drive with very loud music, and don't drive distracted with your phone.
2. Don't panic
Despite the straightforward rule that you have to give way, loud sirens coming up behind you can startle even the most alert of us. And if they can startle, they can get drivers to panic. The worst thing anyone can do in any situation is giving in to panic.
Panic can make drivers do illogical things. You can freeze behind the wheel, not knowing what to do. You can end up blocking the emergency vehicle. Heck, you can even end up committing the cardinal sin of driving: colliding with an emergency vehicle.
If an ambulance, a police car, or a fire truck approaches, relax and stay calm. All you have to do is find a way to let it pass safely.
3. Find a way to move to the right
According to the guidelines that Lifeline's Gus sent us, the universal principle is that drivers need to move to the right. If you're on a multi-lane highway (or expressway with a speed limit of 100 km/h), slow down, signal, and move over to the right. Pull as close as you can to the right side of the road, and stop if necessary when it's safe to do so. Do not occupy the shoulder.
If you're on a two-lane road (one lane going, one lane coming), it's the same. Use your indicators, signal right, and move to the right. Don't block any intersections.
The exception, according to Lifeline, is when you're on a one-way road. In this instance, you can either move to the right or to the left of the road, depending on the situation.
The moving to the right is actually by the book, or at least by the law. The traffic code, the 54-year old Republic Act 4136 (which created the Land Transportation Commission, and later on the Land Transportation Office), makes the same order:
Under Article V, Section 49, it says: Upon the approach of any police or fire department vehicle, or of an ambulance giving an audible signal, the driver of every other vehicle shall immediately drive the same to a position as near as possible and parallel to the right-hand edge or curb of the highway, clear of any intersection of highways, and shall stop and remain in such position, unless otherwise directed by a peace officer, until such vehicle shall have passed.
Yes, it's almost legalese, but it's easy enough to understand: generally, we all have to pull over to the right side to make space and let the emergency vehicle go by on our left side.
The Vienna Convention -an international meeting that took place in 1968 in Austria for nations to hash out common rules, classifications, and other traffic-related matters of which the Philippines is a signatory- echoes this same procedure to make room for emergency vehicles to pass. Given the international nature of the Convention, they did not specify the actual procedure because it will vary depending on whether the ratifying country drives on the left or the right side of the road.
4. What to do at intersections
When an emergency vehicle approaches an intersection, it can get a bit trickier.
In this situation, all traffic from all directions must yield to the ambulance. That means making way, regardless if the vehicle is coming from another direction. You do have to be careful to not block the intersection when doing so.
More importantly, if an emergency vehicle approaches you from behind, you must not make a left turn. The reason is that emergency vehicles generally pass to the left, sometimes counter-flowing to do so. You do not want to find out firsthand how well (or poorly) a big, heavy vehicle like an ambulance or a fire truck brakes.
If need be, go past the intersection, pull over, let the vehicle pass, and safely make a U-turn and go about your way.
5. If you can't move, be prepared to make space
Of course, urban traffic like ours is definitely not an ideal situation to be in. During rush hours, there is rarely any space left between vehicles forward or backward and even left to right. We wouldn't even be surprised if you can easily reach over and grab the door handle of the car beside you.
In that situation, it's difficult to pull over to the right. And if you really can't move, don't worry about it.
“Actually the same procedures apply,” said Gus of Lifeline. “However when they have no [where] to go, no way [then]. It really depends on the traffic and the streets.”
Be aware though that there are penalties for failing to yield to an emergency vehicle; actually, it qualifies as reckless driving.
The first offense will net you a fine of up to PhP 1,000. If you keep doing it, the penalties get stiffer, and authorities can suspend or even revoke your license. And also, don't tailgate them when they go by; thankfully, that's not as common as it used to be back in the '90s.
At the end of the day, all you have to do is make an earnest effort to let the emergency vehicle by as safely and as quickly as possible because the emergency they're attending to could very well be someone you know or love.