The danger of bad drivers at a crash scene

The simple answer is that we have lost trust in the average driver

By Mick Mayers

I have been asked many times why firefighters insist on closing off multiple lanes at car accidents.

The simple answer is that we have lost trust in the average driver and it's for our very survival that we do so. It might sound like we are overreacting, but we're not.

Photo/City of Alpharetta

I can relate a little story to you. I happened to be returning to my own jurisdiction the other day and stopped to assist at a traffic accident. Nobody was hurt, but traffic was beginning to snarl, so with my high visibility traffic vest on, I used my department vehicle (with the full light package) to protect the scene until law enforcement could arrive and take over. To say I was exasperated after being relieved would be a gross understatement.

Drivers tried to negotiate between the wrecked vehicles, drove around and through traffic cones, and in a few cases, drove straight at me. We can add lights, we can stripe our vehicles, we can don highly reflective garments, but the reality is that there are too many distracted drivers on the roadways, and as responders that have to work highway incidents, we are in the crosshairs.

As I directed the cars into the lanes to go by, I am not exaggerating when I say that for every 10 drivers, three of them were talking on cellphones. Every now and then, despite state law forbidding it, someone would drive by texting. And best yet, some of the drivers were more interested in taking a picture on their phone ... while driving.

This incident took place during broad daylight. Consider that on any given weekend night at least one or two of the drivers on the highway, especially in the early morning hours, are likely to be drinking or otherwise impaired. In the dark, and often times in inclement weather, we are out there assuming that all conditions are favorable for us to finish the job and head back to the station in one piece. The truth is, we are asking for trouble.

From 2000 to 2010, 12 firefighters died in the act of directing traffic or during work at vehicle accidents. I didn't even bother looking up the injuries to personnel working on traffic scenes. The whole situation is that frustrating.

Ironically, I am not against cellphone use when driving. I would probably not even be against texting while driving or even taking a picture while driving if there were a safe way to do so. The problem is that people can't even negotiate an aisle in the grocery store while talking or texting or even taking a picture, yet they get into a two-ton missile, apply their foot to the accelerator, and don't even care whose world they are preparing to upend.

There are just no phone calls or texts or pictures that are worth a life.

Furthermore, these firefighters, EMTs, and law enforcement officers, while trying to get you safely on your way to your destination, are risking their life by doing so. If drivers were careful, we wouldn't have to shut down all the lanes around an accident; but even when we do that, we still have idiots who plow into our vehicles, or worse, into the middle of the incident.

When I roll up on a scene, I have heard all the excuses, but I have simply informed the individuals involved, “Shut all lanes down." They can't hit us if they aren't moving. It would be nice if there were another option, but it seems like these days — having lost another firefighter like this — we are running out of choices.

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