In the United States it is commonly taught and practiced that when you see an emergency vehicle coming from behind you with its lights and/or siren going, you slow down and pull off to the right-hand side of the road to allow the emergency vehicle to pass on the left.

Generally, this is not a problem, however, there is at least one instance where this is not ideal.

In a hilly area, or immediately following a left-turn, the driver does not notice the coming ambulance until it is close and quickly determines that it is too risky to cut all the way across the road from the left-hand side to the right-hand side before stopping. There is not much traffic, so there is still plenty of room for the emergency vehicle to pass.

A very similar situation occurred for both my wife and myself. In both instances, the ambulance stopped directly behind us and honked until we moved to the right-hand side of the road in spite of the fact that there was ample room for them to pass.

Is there something in the policy for the drivers of emergency vehicles that simply prohibits them from passing traffic on any side but the left? I know in extreme circumstances, they can even carefully drive through oncoming traffic.

In a situation as mentioned above, should one simply cut across the road in front of the coming emergency vehicle?

  • 5
    Fun fact: Maryland does not say "pull to the right," it says "pull to the edge." The instructors in my driver's ed course (who were all current or former police officers, and all presumably were used to driving with lights and sirens) made a big point out of that, because they didn't like it when people tried to get to the right and cut in front of them). – cpast Oct 23 '15 at 23:30
  • Also, any particular state you care about? – cpast Oct 23 '15 at 23:34
  • 2
    Colorado. Colorado Springs specifically. – Taylor Lopez Oct 24 '15 at 3:00

Using two states as examples:

In California, emergency vehicle operators are exempt from pretty much the entirety of the rules of the road (VC 21055). They can pass you on the right if they want to. Department policy might say no, but that depends on department policy and the details of their emergency vehicle operation course.

However, California law requires all drivers to pull to the right when an emergency vehicle approaches (VC 21806). Even though an ambulance driver legally could pass you on the right, you are required to pull right. According to the BLM's emergency response policy for fire personnel in California, this means passing on the right is heavily disfavored: the emergency vehicle operator doesn't know that the driver (who is clearly not paying much attention) won't suddenly notice them and comply with the vehicle code, cutting them off or running into them. Other policies/things which seem to reflect policies say similar things, and all make it clear that operators need to be careful that the car they're passing won't drive into them.

In Maryland, the law is a bit different. Section 21-405 of the Maryland Code obligates drivers to move to the edge of the roadway. This means either edge, so on a divided highway you might pull left. On a non-divided road, you obviously pull right. In this case, the vehicle may end up passing you on the right, but again: they are going to be careful about it, and would rather you get out of their way so they don't have to worry that you'll suddenly see them and drive into them.

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The first answer is "do not panic and attempt an unsafe maneuver." The second answer is "try very hard to move to the right." The third answer is, "whatever you intend to do, give the emergency vehicle ample and clear indication of exactly what that is."

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