GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. - We've all been in that situation, where you see lights and sirens behind you, but you're not sure what to do. Move to the left? Move to the right? Come to a stop? We rode along with emergency workers and State Patrol to see the problem first-hand.
North Memorial Ambulance Service let us put our cameras inside and outside their ambulances so we could document what happens when we go with lights and sirens down the street. We went on real calls, with real emergencies, and ran into real problems.
We came to an intersection on one call with sirens blaring and watched as a silver car, trying to get out of the way, took up two lanes of traffic. It wasn't until we came to a near-stop before the car moved far enough out of the way to let us through, wasting precious moments as we drove to a medical emergency.
Another intersection, another problem - this time as we approach the lights, not one but two, cars cross through the intersection in front of the ambulance. The paramedics we are riding say, it's not always the driver's fault.
"With cars now-a-days they make them soundproof, it makes it a little harder," said our driver with North Memorial.
That might help explain what happened next. We drove behind a line of cars, with lights and sirens, for nearly 30 seconds without acknowledgement. Our driver had to change the tone of the siren just to get the drivers to notice us and get out of the way.
"Most of our attention is focused forward when we're driving our vehicles and when an emergency vehicle approaches from the rear, with today's vehicles, as insulated as they are and soundproof, people don't recognize a squad car, ambulance or fire truck until it's fairly close to them," said Lt. Eric Roeske with Minnesota State Patrol.
Lt. Roeske says people need to pay attention, look in their mirrors more often, and most of all, they should not panic.
"We have people that will move to the left, some will move to the right, some will hit the brakes,"says the Lt. Roeske.
So, the question is, what are you supposed to do? Minnesota law simply states that you should yield the right of way to an emergency vehicle and try to move to the right. But, is that always right?
"Each situation is different so we can't say you should always do this, or never do that, but most frequently, if you could move to the right without causing a traffic disruption or putting yourself in danger, that's the best course of action," said Lt. Roeske.
We rode with State Patrol to see if we could find some of those tricky situations. On the highway we noticed a driver ride right up on the center median as the trooper drove by because they obviously didn't know which direction the squad needed to go.
"You come to a tight spot like this, the center median is okay. What you're basically looking for them to do is come to a stop, get that acknowledgement that you know, or the trooper knows, the driver has seen you," said Lt. Craig Isaacson with Minnesota State Patrol.
Highways pose their own set of problems for emergency vehicles especially during rush-hour. While we riding with the State Patrol, they received a call for an emergency on a bridge over Highway 36 in Roseville. We weren't far from that location, but we were stuck in traffic. The lieutenant put on his lights and sirens and did his best to navigate.
"See now most of these folks are doing the only thing available to them, left and right," said Isaacson.
The cars did a good job of parting the way, except one driver who crossed all the way to the left when the right-hand lane was wide-open, slowing Lt. Isaacson down.
Just a few minutes later, the trooper tries to exit one freeway to another with two lanes of cars stopped at the metered ramp. The lieutenant does his best to pass on the left until we come to a drop-off. He changes the tone of the siren hoping the drivers will move through the light and then move over. They eventually do, but again, precious time is wasted.
Construction, narrow shoulders and traffic are all things that could change how you yield to an emergency vehicle, but the bottom line is this: move to the right if you can and at the very least, safely get out of the way.
"Our number one goal is to get to those who need help safely. We can't help someone if we can't get there," said Lt. Roeske.
What do you do if the emergency vehicle is coming at you in opposite traffic? You're fine unless it's a two lane road. In that situation you too need to pull over and stop. The reason is you simply don't know when and where that emergency vehicle might need to turn on the two-lane road.
What about intersections? It's okay to stay put if the emergency vehicle has room to go around you. If you have the green light and there is no room for them to get around you, you can go through the intersection and then move over.
(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)