SPECIAL REPORT: Hazardous mistakes drivers make around ambulances

By Minna Sugimoto - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Do you know what to do if an ambulance with its lights and sirens on pulls up behind your car? Paramedics say there are some hazardous mistakes drivers make when trying to get out of the way of one.

Hawaii News Now takes you on board a city and county ambulance to find out what paramedics face when every second matters.

12:05 PM -- unresponsive person. The crew of Kokua One is enroute.

"In our line of work, seconds matter," Chris Pidot, city Emergency Medical Services paramedic, said. "The sooner we can nip something in the bud, the better outcome for the patient."

Pidot drives east on Kuakini Street, which has just one lane in each direction. With cars safely pulling over to the right, the ambulance is able to get through by straddling the double solid lines.

"They do get confused sometimes," Pidot said. "Sometimes we'll have people cross over the center line to go in oncoming traffic. That's the last thing we want to have them do."

While approaching the Punahou Street-South Beretania Street intersection, Pidot sees a line of cars across the makai-bound lanes making no obvious effort to get out of the way. Suddenly, the driver of an SUV charges through a red light in an apparent effort to be helpful.

"There's many things that can interfere with people pulling over," Pidot said. "They might have their radios up or they might be on their cell phones."

EMS officials say the first mistake many drivers make is simply being unaware of what's going on around them.

"Keep your eye on that rear-view mirror once in awhile," Patty Dukes, city Emergency Medical Services chief, said. "If you see an ambulance, don't panic."

Pidot and his partner, Jon Kusano, are at an apartment complex on Young Street. Their 91-year-old patient's blood pressure is extremely low. They use a machine to monitor her vitals and set up an IV, before starting their journey to the hospital.

"To Queen's, Kokua One. Kokua One to Queen's," was the radio transmission.

There are 21 city ambulance units on Oahu responding to a total of 150 to 200 calls per day. In addition to their medical studies, paramedics undergo 40 hours of emergency vehicle operations training to prepare them for what they might encounter on the road.

"Some people freeze like deer in headlights," Pidot said. "They don't know what to do so they just stop in the middle of the road."

"If they stop too quickly, and we're going at a relatively decent speed, it's going to be difficult," Dukes said. "That vehicle is 15,000 pounds and it takes longer to stop than it does a regular car."

Pidot and Kusano pick up their next patient at the Ilikai in Waikiki, a 74-year-old woman suffering from a 104-degree fever and nausea.

"Here's some oxygen in your nose, okay, help you breathe," they told their patient.

Heading to Straub Hospital via Ala Moana Boulevard, the ambulance must slow down for pedestrians who step onto the roadway, despite the blaring siren.

Then a car speeds by on the left, only to plug up the space that was available at the red light for the ambulance to get through. Precious seconds are wasted, as Kusano maneuvers his way around the stopped cars.

"You never know what the drivers are going to do," Kusano said.

In 2011, there were nine major traffic crashes involving city ambulances on Oahu. Six of those involved ambulances operating with lights and sirens.

EMS Chief Patty Dukes was in the back of an ambulance tending to a patient several years ago, when a car pulled in front of her ambulance, causing a collision. She was out of work for four months.

"The patient luckily was strapped in with his gurney. He was ok," Dukes said. "But I was worried about my patient. I couldn't get up and take care of him. So it is dangerous."

3:05 PM -- another sick call. As we travel mauka on Punchbowl Street, we see drivers doing their best in a tight area to provide room for the ambulance.

"Yeah, they are. They're moving over," Kusano said. "You can't really move over to the side too much. There's not much room for them."

But once on the H1 west-bound, Kusano points out another dangerous mistake drivers make. A white car that's already out of the way begins to cut across the freeway.

"He's in his left lane," Kusano said. "He's going all the way to the right."

"Actually what they need to do is yield to the vehicle," Dukes said. "Yes, they prefer you to go to the right, but that doesn't mean you go from the left lane all the way to the right."

But one of the biggest no-nos -- ambulance chasing. Some drivers decide to get through traffic by tailgating an ambulance.

"If you're riding that close, we stop, they're not going to," Dukes said. "They're not going to have the reaction time to be able to stop."

With the pau hana rush underway, the commute becomes even more of challenge. Paramedics say they hope drivers will keep one thing in mind when they're on the road and an ambulance is approaching.

"It's such a small island that there's a very good chance that somebody, wherever we're responding to, that might be somebody you know. It might be a family member," Pidot said. "You know, just move on the side so we can get there to help."

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