Emergency Vehicles: How Are They Special?

Emergency Vehicles: How Are They Special?

By Terri B. Kalker, Esq

We have all experienced a time when we are about to enter an intersection on a green light and we hear sirens blaring in the distance. No one wants to be T-boned by an ambulance or police car, so natural inclination is to check your surroundings and assess what maneuvers need to be made. In reality, there are now several New York laws in place that must be followed any time we encounter an emergency vehicle on a roadway.

New York State recognizes that drivers of authorized emergency vehicles have a special need to respond quickly to emergencies. An emergency vehicle is broadly defined as an ambulance, police vehicle, fire vehicle, or any properly equipped private vehicle that is responding to the scene of an accident, police call, alarm, fire, or call for help from a person. However, emergency vehicle operators, such as Hatzalah volunteers, cannot disregard all rules of prudent and responsible drivers. Vehicle and Traffic Laws 1104 (c) imposes upon drivers engaged in an emergency operation a duty to use audible signals by bell, horn, siren, electronic device, or exhaust whistles. The vehicle must be equipped with at least one lighted lamp so that, from any direction and under normal atmospheric conditions, it is visible from a distance of at least 500 feet and must have at least one red light.

Now that we know what is considered an emergency vehicle, there are several special provisions in the Vehicle and Traffic Law that relate to our reaction to encountering a:

  1. Failure To Yield To An Emergency Vehicle
  2. Move-Over Law
  3. Following An Emergency Vehicle Too Closely

A driver who sees an approaching emergency vehicle that has illuminated red lights and/or emitting an audible signal must move over to the right and stop when the emergency vehicle is behind the driver. This is obviously required in order to allow space for the emergency vehicle to safely pass.

A relatively newer law is titled the Move-Over Law. New York VTL 1144-a mandates that a motorist approaching a stopped emergency vehicle must move over or slow down. If you see a police officer writing a ticket to an unlucky person on the shoulder of the road, you need to attempt to move to the middle lane wherever practical. Unfortunately, there is a lot of subjectivity involved, and better to err on the side of caution to prevent you from being the next motorist that officer tickets.

The last violation relating to emergency vehicles is titled “Following An Emergency Vehicle Too Closely.” A typical scenario: We are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic of the Van Wyck Expressway. We hear a siren approaching from behind. As that vehicle gets close, we move a lane to the right. Anyone in New York who has been in that situation knows that as soon as that ambulance or police car passes, there is a line of cars jockeying to get right behind that emergency vehicle to coast as the seas are parted ahead. As tempting as that is, do not ride the tail of the emergency vehicle. The law states that one is supposed to stay at least 500 feet behind any moving emergency vehicle displaying warning lights and sounding a siren. Clearly that won’t happen in our crowded Van Wyck situation, but keep it in mind on open roadways.

To sum it up, use common sense and remember that emergency vehicles can be going to save your friend or relative.


Terri B. Kalker, Esq., is the principal lawyer of the Law Office of Terri B. Kalker, a law firm that, for the past 25 years, concentrated on criminal and traffic law. The firm is reachable via email at tbkesq@nyticketlaw.com or phone: 718-793-1900.

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