Flashing lights don’t mean what they used to.

As a firefighter I have traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles behind the wheel of an emergency vehicle with the lights and sirens on. I know that I am not alone when complaining about people not pulling over or getting out of the way for Fire, Police, and EMS vehicles in route to an emergency. I often have wondered why this is. Until recently I just agreed with the general consensus, that the drivers are just not paying attention or too busy on the phone.

Today while traveling by the construction along West Cache Rd I noticed the road filled with city and private construction company trucks with flashing lights of all colors to include red, blue, white & amber. Often I see T&G Construction and other construction company vehicles traveling on the road, several miles away from any construction zone, with their lights flashing. Being a firefighter I find this to be a bit troublesome that construction workers are using emergency colors for everyday use.

This bothered me enough that I actually looked it up in the state statue and found a bit of a surprise waiting for me. §47-12-229 states that the DOT will adopt standards for such use and allows State, County, and City owned vehicles to have flashing red and blue lights.  So under this statute, private construction companies are not allowed to use flashing red and blue lights unless the company “is an agency of the state” which means that the state would own them.  §47-12-218.1 allows for Tow trucks to use flashing red and blue lights, but only while on the scene of an emergency.

Coming back to the construction on Cache Rd, this week I saw Cache Rd filled with those construction vehicles as well as a Lawton Fire Truck responding to an emergency, all competing for driver’s attention with their red and blue lights.  All the drivers hear is a siren and several vehicles with the flashing lights; it would take the driver several seconds to find the true emergency vehicle and take the necessary actions to give way to it.  Now looking at all of this in perspective, a driver may see flashing lights several times during an average day.  The problem arises when you ask, when are the flashing lights important, when is it an emergency?

I should also mention that several studies have been done over the last decades that state the need for emergency vehicles to use amber lights. These studies find that tired, confused, and drunk drivers will drive toward the red lights.  These same drivers will drive away or around the amber lights.  While the studies have concluded that emergency vehicles need amber lights, they limited it to one placed on the left rear of the vehicle. This is also why traffic cones are amber and not red and blue.

The CDC reports that 116 road construction workers were killed in 2009. Construction workers are very vulnerable while working on streets and highways, and so flashing lights are necessary, just not red and blue.  Drivers are becoming complacent with all the red and blue flashing lights because so many different types of vehicles are using them for different uses. Red and blue lights were originally meant for emergency vehicles responding to emergencies.  We can do this by only allowing red and blue lights on emergency vehicles as outlined in §47-12-218, which is only for Police, Fire and EMS.  This leaves all other uses for flashing lights to use green, amber, and white lights.  This would allow the driver to distinguish the emergency vehicles from the non emergency vehicles moving on the roadway. When responding to a call, emergency vehicles need to use the red and blue lights.  When on the scene, emergency vehicles need to change to “Blocking” mode; this would turn off most if not all of the red/blue lights and turn on the amber lights.  This would increase scene safety and also give drivers the ability to recognize the difference between “Attention” and “Emergency” lights, once again.

Matthew Eccles