See an emergency vehicle? Then move over

WILLMAR -- When Tracey Watson heads to the scene of a medical emergency, she's often almost as concerned about the traffic as she is about the patient.

WILLMAR -- When Tracey Watson heads to the scene of a medical emergency, she's often almost as concerned about the traffic as she is about the patient.

Threading an ambulance through the morning rush hour on First Street is increasingly a challenge, said Watson, an emergency medical technician with the Willmar Ambulance Service.

"The two biggest things I see are that people just plain don't pull over, or they pull over and stop in the intersection," she said.

Emergency responders, law enforcement officials and fire officials have two words for the public: Move over.

Minnesota's "Move over" law requires motorists to move at least one lane away if an emergency vehicle -- such as an ambulance, squad car or fire truck -- is approaching with its emergency lights on. If there's no room to safely move aside, motorists must at least slow down.


Drivers also are required to move over and slow down for emergency vehicles stopped on the road with their lights flashing. But many motorists -- statewide as well as locally -- are ignoring this, say officials.

"I look at the last few years and the number of serious crashes and fatalities that have occurred," said Jim Kulset, Willmar Police Chief.

His view: "not nearly enough" drivers obey the law.

"More times than not, they're not pulling over or not slowing down," agreed Brad Hanson, operations manager of the Willmar Ambulance Service.

Rarely a day goes by that EMTs, law enforcement officials and fire crews don't respond to some type of emergency. Last year, law enforcement agencies and emergency services in Kandiyohi County responded to 39,551 calls, according to the Willmar Dispatch Center.

While not all of them involved lights and sirens, a good percentage did.

Dan Hartog, Kandiyohi County sheriff, said there have been some crashes, including a fatal crash in 1998 when a driver plowed into the back of a squad car at a highway traffic stop. The driver died and two Kandiyohi County sheriff's deputies were injured.

Kulset has seen many close calls.


He recalls the motorist who saw red emergency lights, panicked, hit the brakes and crossed the center line. Last summer a Willmar police officer was clipped when a motorist came too close during a traffic stop.

"It happens more often than you think," Kulset said.

Traffic stops on highways can be especially hazardous, Hartog said.

"If somebody is going to do something to us, we need room to react. Cars shouldn't be whizzing by. They've got to get over," he said. "On rural roads, a lot of times there isn't a shoulder. It's pretty uncomfortable when you're out on the highway and cars are coming at you."

Technology has brought about some safety improvements.

Most newer fire trucks now have LED lights, said Marv Calvin, Willmar fire chief.

"The LEDs are brighter and easier to see," he said.

Reflective gear helps make law enforcement and emergency responders more visible on the roadway.


In Willmar and Spicer, Opticom systems have been installed on traffic lights at major intersections, automatically providing a green light for emergency vehicles.

"Not only do you get there faster, but you clear the traffic," Calvin said.

National studies have found that Opticom helps improve emergency response rates by up to 20 percent, while reducing the risk of crashes.

It's important for emergency vehicle drivers to obey traffic laws too and not take unnecessary risks, Watson said.

"It's not just other drivers. We need to be just as safe and just as cautious," she said.

But officials say it's still incumbent on the public to pay attention.

The Sheriff's Office has begun handing out brochures on the "Move over" law at driver awareness classes and traffic stops, Hartog said.

Willmar fire trucks now are posted with signs reminding motorists to move to the right for lights and sirens.


"I think a lot of it is education. People do have to slow down and move over," Hartog said.

Too many people are distracted by cell phones, loud music and multitasking while driving, Kulset said.

"I've seen a guy literally eating a bowl of soup while driving down the highway," he said. "I think there's less and less respect for other people on the highway and obedience to traffic laws. We're such a fast-paced society. ... You really are endangering public servants' lives if you're not paying attention."

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