Drivers More Distracted Around Emergency Vehicles, Endangering First Responders: NSC

More than 1 in 10 respondents—16 percent—said they have either struck or almost struck a first responder or emergency vehicle stopped on or near the road. Despite these responses, 89 percent of drivers said they believe distracted drivers are a major source of risk to first responders.

According to a survey released Wednesday by the National Safety Council and the Emergency Responder Safety Institute, 71 percent of U.S. drivers take photos or videos when they see an emergency vehicle, whether it’s making a routine traffic stop or responding to a fire or crash.

The Council released the survey results in observance of Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Survey funding was provided to the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association through the FEMA Fire Prevention and Firefighter Safety Grant Program. The survey results highlight the behaviors of the driving public related to the safety of first responders.  

Of those surveyed, 60 percent said that when they see an emergency vehicle, they post about it to social media, and 66 percent send an email about it – with all of these behaviors occurring while they’re behind the wheel. Even under normal driving conditions, 24 percent of drivers surveyed said they take photos or video while driving, 29 percent said they use social media, and 24 percent said they send email.

More than 1 in 10 respondents—16 percent—said they have either struck or almost struck a first responder or emergency vehicle stopped on or near the road. Despite these responses, 89 percent of drivers said they believe distracted drivers are a major source of risk to first responders.

“The cruel irony is, we are putting the people who are trying to improve safety in very unsafe situations,” said Nick Smith, interim president and CEO of NSC. “Our emergency responders deserve the highest levels of protection as they grapple with situations that are not only tactically difficult but also emotionally taxing. Save your communications for off the road; disconnect and just drive.”

Thousands of people die each year in crashes involving distracted driving, though the Council’s investigations show that these crashes are significantly underreported and undercounted. Emergency responders are at particular risk because they exit their vehicles and attend to emergency situations on active roadways.

In 2013, 37 people died in crashes involving fire trucks, police cars, or ambulances, and an additional 17,028 people were injured. Since January of this year, 16 emergency responders have been struck and killed by vehicles. Unfortunately, 40 percent of survey respondents said that the potential for being struck by a vehicle is “just part of the risk” of being a first responder.

“The Emergency Responder Safety Institute was born 21 years ago following the tragedy of two highway incidents that took the lives of first responders who were struck while helping others,” said Greg Yost, President of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association, parent organization of the Emergency Responder Safety Institute. “Because of distracted driving, we’ve been focusing our efforts on educating drivers who are often not paying careful enough attention when passing emergency scenes. In 2019, already 16 responders have lost their lives and many others have been injured in these types of crashes,” he added.

Other important findings from the poll include:

  • 19% of drivers admit their own inattentive driving has probably put first responders at unnecessary risk
  • Despite being willing to engage in risky behaviors while driving around emergency vehicles, 62 percent say they are “above average” drivers when passing an emergency vehicle with its lights flashing on the side of the road
  • 24 percent do not realize that there are legal requirements for what drivers must do when they see an emergency vehicle on the side of the road
  • Even though 97 percent say they will see an emergency vehicle if it has its flashing lights on, 74% would still like responders to wear reflective clothing
  • 80 percent of drivers say they slow down to get a better look when they see an emergency response vehicle tending to a fire, crash or traffic stop. Doing so backs up traffic and creates other safety hazards.
  • 67 percent have heard of “Move Over” laws and 73 percent say they move over when they see an emergency vehicle stopped on the side of the road with its lights on – the proper response on nearly all roadways

The full survey and its methodology can be found here.

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