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Va. fire chief: Pre-empting traffic signals for cyclists was mistake

The fire truck driver who rode ahead of the cyclists had turned on a switch that turns traffic lights green for emergency vehicles

By Deirdre Fernandes Beachcombing
The Virginian-Pilot

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — On a Sunday in early October, 90 cyclists rolled through Virginia Beach. They started at the aquarium, went around the Oceana Naval Air Station, up London Bridge Road, through the Great Neck corridor, along Shore Drive and looped back down the Oceanfront.

Along the nearly 30-mile trek through the more populated neighborhoods and busier intersections of the city, the cyclists hit green light after green light. Thanks to an escort from the city’s fire department, the cyclists rarely got stopped by a red light and eased through the city.

The fire engine driver who rode ahead of the cyclists had turned on a switch that turns traffic lights green for emergency vehicles.

The firefighter didn’t realize the device was on, said Battalion Chief Tim Riley, a spokesman for the Virginia Beach Fire Department.

“It was an honest mistake,” Riley said.

And because the ride was moving at a slower pace, it didn’t occur to the firefighter the green lights were more than a lucky break, he said.

Riley acknowledged, though, that this use was outside the department’s normal operating procedures.

All ambulances and some police cars and fire vehicles are equipped with the trigger, called a traffic preemption device.

According to the city’s policy, the pre-emption is supposed to be used during emergencies.

“Traffic pre-emption devices may not be utilized outside of the response or transport phases of an incident,” the city policy states. “They are not to be used when returning to the station or during general transit through the city.”

The event, called the Ride for Research, kicked off Tour des Trees, a 500-mile bike ride sponsored by Stihl. The tour raises money for tree research, education and scholarships, and this year went from Williamsburg to Washington, D.C.

The fire department works with Stihl on many events and fire officials agreed to provide an escort for the ride, Riley said.

“It was a nonprofit,” Riley said. “It was done with the best of intentions.”

The ride’s organizers initially asked for a police presence. But city officials denied the request in the final permit.

For general rides, the city asks participants to obey the rules of the road and abide by traffic laws, said Mike Eason, head of the city’s Resort Management and Special Events Office, which issued the permit.

Races, in which participants can’t stop and roads need to be blocked off, are treated differently, Eason said.

Officer Jimmy Barnes, a police spokesman, said the department gets plenty of requests for police presence but can’t always comply because of a shortage of manpower.

Anita Gambill, a spokeswoman for Stihl, said ride organizers instead reached out to the fire department to help ensure the cyclists were safe.

The ride passed through a fairly urban environment and Gambill said some organizers were concerned the Neptune Festival, which was happening at the same time, could increase traffic and pose a danger to the cyclists.

Gambill said the event brought overnight visitors to Virginia Beach. Riley added the cyclists with Tour des Trees raised $460,000 for the tree research and education fund.

This report ran as part of the “Beachcombing” column in the Virginia Beach Beacon section of The Virginian-Pilot.

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