The recent crashes of two firetrucks in separate incidents in the District have highlighted the dangers posed by motorists who fail to yield to emergency vehicles, officials said this week.
The two collisions, which both occurred Friday, involved firetrucks that were responding to emergency calls. Five people were injured, and one of the vehicles, known as a pumper, was demolished. It would cost $275,000 to replace, D.C. Fire Chief Donald Edwards said.
The crashes point to negligence on the part of motorists, Edwards said. "There appears to be some sense of apathy on the part of many of the motorists, who will not stop or yield to any emergency apparatus," he said after the accidents.
On Friday morning, a firetruck headed east on Missouri Avenue NW collided with a black sport utility vehicle going north on North Capitol Street that failed to yield the right of way, said Battalion Chief Stephen M. Reid, a fire department spokesman. The impact flipped the car onto its roof and sent its driver, a 46-year-old man, to Washington Hospital Center. He was treated at the hospital and given a ticket for failing to yield to an emergency vehicle.
In the second incident, that afternoon, a firetruck going through a green light on Gallatin Street NW swerved to avoid hitting a maroon Hyundai traveling north on Fifth Street NW. The firetruck knocked over a traffic-light pole and then crashed into a tree. The impact smashed in the front end of the truck, shattering the windshield.
The officer in the right front seat of the truck suffered back and knee injuries and had to be extricated from the vehicle. "He took the full brunt," Reid said. "The tree was right in front of his face." The three other firefighters in the truck also were hospitalized. All were treated for injuries, said Barbara Ware, a spokeswoman for Washington Hospital Center.
The driver of the Hyundai "disappeared into the sunset," Edwards said angrily.
The number of traffic accidents involving all emergency vehicles actually has stayed relatively constant over the last few years, officials say.
In 1995, 282 such incidents took place, dropping to 221 in 1996 and 200 in 1997, according to Capt. Timothy H. Gerhart, the fire and emergency medical services department's safety officer. Last year, the number of incidents inched up to 214. As of Tuesday, there have been 119 incidents this year, Gerhart said.
But officials say those figures mask the risk incurred by drivers' failure to yield to emergency vehicles.
Few accidents occur because of driver error on the part of emergency personnel, Edwards said. Although D.C. law permits vehicles responding to emergency calls to run through stop signs, red lights and flashing red lights, fire department regulations require its drivers to come to a halt until it is safe and clear to proceed, Edwards said. Any department driver involved in an accident is required to attend a driver re-training course, Gerhart said.
The problem usually occurs when other motorists neglect to yield the right of way, officials say. The danger is compounded during the summer months, when motorists roll up their windows, crank up the air conditioning and turn on their radios, making it difficult to hear oncoming vehicles, Edwards said.
Gerhart, the safety officer, speculated that the District's narrow streets and cross-cutting avenues make motorists more impatient. "It's just hard to get around this town quick and in an effective manner," Gerhart said. "You have a firetruck or ambulance come up, and it just slows you down even more, so drivers take more chances."
Officials urged motorists and pedestrians to pull over and make way for emergency vehicles. "It could be your house to which we're responding," Reid said.