THE IDEA OF a motorist refusing to stop or yield to an emergency vehicle is one of those quirks of human behavior that is hard to fathom. Yet it does happens, and in Washington to a troubling degree. In the last week alone, two collisions have occurred on District streets involving city firetrucks responding to emergency calls. The toll was not small: five people injured, a firetruck demolished to the tune of $275,000 and other city property damaged.

Most of the crashes are not due to error on the part of firefighters and ambulance drivers. They are primarily caused by motorists who deliberately fail to yield the right of way. D.C. Fire Chief Donald Edwards has watched the incidents of traffic accidents involving emergency vehicles accumulate over the years: 282 in 1995; 221 in 1996; 200 in 1997; 214 in 1998 and 119 thus far this year. Motorist negligence is making the streets unsafe for both civilians and emergency personnel. "There appears to be some sense of apathy on the part of many motorists, who will not stop or yield to any emergency apparatus," Chief Edwards said.

That is a reckless and dangerous attitude that must be curbed. The traffic rule is well established, sensible and straightforward. Motorists and pedestrians -- not some or most but all -- must pull over, make way for emergency vehicles and halt. Contrary to what some violators may be thinking, to yield to an ambulance or firetruck is not a sign of weakness. It's the law. There's an even more self-interested reason for obeying the rules. As Battalion Chief Stephen M. Reid, a fire department spokesman, said: "It could be your house to which we're responding."