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Move right for lights and sirens, it's the law
For the Reporter
You see it almost every day: private vehicles not yielding the right of way when approached by an emergency vehicle that has its lights and sirens operating. It makes you wonder what exactly the law says about it.
There are many reasons why people do not yield the right of way: Inattention while driving, not looking in rear-view mirrors regularly, too loud music, other distractions, and better insulated vehicles that deaden sound.
Washington State traffic law RCW 46.61.210 requires that "...the driver of every other vehicle shall yield the right of way and shall immediately drive to a position parallel to, and as close as possible to, the right-hand edge or curb of the roadway clear of any intersection and shall stop and remain in such position until the authorized emergency vehicle has passed, except when otherwise directed by a police officer."
The law (RCW 46.61.264) also requires pedestrians to yield to emergency vehicles responding to an incident.
A summary of the law for drivers approached by an emergency vehicle:
• If your vehicle is in motion, move to the right as soon as it is safe to do so and come to a full stop.
• If you are unable to move to the right, slow and come to a full stop.
• If you are stopped, stay stopped unless directed otherwise.
• Never move to the left unless directed to do so.
• Remember that the law applies to emergency vehicles approaching from any direction, not just from behind.
• Do not attempt to follow an emergency vehicle too closely. You are required to stay 500 feet back.
• If you are standing at the curb or on a sidewalk, do not cross the street until the emergency vehicle has passed.
Emergency responders are taught to pass on the left side. This may mean that they are forced to move into on-coming traffic lanes, but lights and sirens make them highly visible to everyone, reducing the risk. If private vehicles mistakenly try to move left to avoid a fire engine or police car, they will increase the chance for a crash. Keep in mind that a Kent Fire Department RFA fire engine weighs in excess of 40,000 pounds while the average car weighs approximately 3,000 pounds.
Another situation that drivers should be aware of is what to do when approaching parked emergency vehicles that are utilizing their emergency lights. RCW 46.61.212 requires drivers to approach an emergency scene with caution and, if reasonable, yield the right of way by changing lanes to the left.
A common situation that 46.61.212 applies to is at a vehicle crash scene where you may have police cars, fire engines, ambulances, and tow trucks all working to rescue victims. Violation of this RCW is a gross misdemeanor.
Keeping lanes clear for emergency vehicles is crucial for everyone's safety. Delays while responding can affect the outcome for someone who has called 911 for an injury, illness or police matter.