Make Way to Give Way

AmbulanceSirens! I'm being overtaken by an ambulance on the way to a call. Signal, move out of the right lane onto the shoulder and stop. Traffic around me seems to be well aware today too as they are doing much the same thing.

Emergency right of way is being granted promptly until the ambulance reaches traffic stopped for a red light at an intersection. This is where the emergency response grinds to a halt as the stationary drivers don't seem to be either willing or able to get out of the way.

Thank goodness it didn't take long for the signal override to function and the traffic lights to turn green. That seemed to open the dam on the traffic stream and the ambulance was on it's way again.

Part of the problem is that we are not prepared for a situation like this in everyday driving. How often have you been stopped at a red light and then been called on to make way for police, fire or ambulance vehicles en route to an emergency? Without practice it does take longer to act in any situation because we don't have any experiece to act on.

The next time you find yourself stopped in traffic at a red light, imagine that you have to make room for a sudden emergency. Will you move to the left or to the right? Have you left yourself enough room to move forward? If you are at the front of the line, did you stop far enough back from cross traffic?

The law requires that you move to the nearest edge of the roadway. On a two lane highway with traffic in either direction, that would be to the right. On a highway with a barrier between directions or on a one way street with more than one lane, you may have to move right or left depending on which side you are on.

In any event, use your signal light and do what you are indicating that you will do.

When you stop behind another vehicle at a red light, you should always be able to see pavement between the hood of your vehicle and the bottom of the rear tires of the vehicle in front. If you are on a hill and behind a heavy truck or new driver with a standard transmission, you might want to leave a larger gap as a precaution or courtesy.

This serves two purposes, giving you room to move aside in and keeping you from being part of the accordion in a rear end collision.

Did you stop far enough back from the intersection, behind the marked stop line or crosswalk? Many drivers do not and this seriously limits their ability to move forward and to one side without coming into conflict with other traffic in the intersection.

Having stopped properly, you have at least the width of the crosswalk in front of you to move forward into without actually entering the intersection itself. This may be all that you need to be able to get to one side or the other to clear a path.

One last thought and that is to be prepared for an emergency vehicle whose driver chooses to drive on the wrong side of the median barrier approaching a clogged intersection. It is legal to do this if it is done safely, so if you are oncoming traffic to an emergency vehicle you must be prepared to yield for more than just a left turn in the intersection.

Good Morning Tim,

I thought I would mention that emergency vehicles should never be "racing" to an emergency despite the fact that people may perceive the fact that the emergency vehicle with lights and siren on may be going very fast when at times they are not even going as fast as the speed limit allows. I think those of us in the emergency services can appreciate the fact that we need to get to certain incidents as quickly and safely as possible but it should never be referred to as a race despite what we may know behind the actions of some responders. Public perception can be very disallusioned at times and to indicate that we race to an incident may just give the wrong impression to the general public. We should always be driving with 'due regard for safety' even in an emergency response.....not a race to see who gets there first. Thanks for the otherwise excellent article and the many others that you publish.

Bob W

In this context the most appropriate definition of  'race' is 'to move or progress swiftly or at full speed'.  This seems appropriate to me to cover the case where an emergency vehicle is trying to get to the scene swiftly, or as quickly as possible.  I would definitely hope that an emergency vehicle would race to its destination when the situation calls for it.  


One thing to note about stopping far enough back is that one shouldn't stop too far back as to not trigger the car sensor located immediately behind the stop line (or in some cases right on it).

More than once I've had to pull in-front of the first car stopped at a secondary intersection at night waiting for a green light across a main street that would never come. I'm not sure what those people do when I'm not around - I hope they don't just stay there, 3 feet away from salvation for the entire night, or until cross-traffic triggers the sensor for them :/

It's typical these days for traffic engineers to use a couple of sensor loops, one after the other - and rare to put one tight up against (never mind underneath) the stop line.

If you find an intersection that doesn't seem to be functioning properly it's worth calling the local municipal engineering department to let them know. Not sure if it's sensor controlled? Chances are there will be pedestrian buttons to push, a dead give-away in fact.

In Vancouver City, the engineers sometimes use a clever trick for whether or not there will be a left-turn arrow phase, by installing the sensor(s) more than two vehicle lengths back from the intersection; they only activate a green arrow if a vehicle stops, and remains, over them for a period of time.