In the case of an emergency, everyone wants emergency responders to arrive as quickly as possible. As a result, emergency vehicles responding to an emergency are permitted to disobey the normal rules of the road, they have certain privileges that normal drivers do not. They are permitted to do what is necessary to get them to the emergency as quickly, and safely, as possible.
Drivers and pedestrians are expected to be aware of emergency vehicles and respond accordingly. Unfortunately though, accidents do happen.
Emergency Vehicle Rules of the Road
During an emergency, responders (which includes police, firefighters and ambulance drivers) are permitted to disobey traffic laws. They are allowed to speed, go through red lights, shut down or block roadways, drive on the opposite side of the road, the shoulder or the grass.
North Carolina law specifically states allows speed limits to be disobeyed, stating that: “The speed limitations set forth in this Article shall not apply to vehicles when operated with due regard for safety under the direction of the police in the chase or apprehension of violators of the law or of persons charged with or suspected of any such violation, nor to fire department or fire patrol vehicles when traveling in response to a fire alarm, nor to public or private ambulances and rescue squad emergency service vehicles when traveling in emergencies, nor to vehicles operated by county fire marshals and civil preparedness coordinators when traveling in the performances of their duties, nor to any of the following when either operated by a law enforcement officer in the chase or apprehension of violators of the law or of persons charged with or suspected of any such violation, when traveling in response to a fire alarm, or for other emergency response purposes: (i) a vehicle operated by the Division of Marine Fisheries of the Department of Environmental Quality or the Division of Parks and Recreation of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources or (ii) a vehicle operated by the North Carolina Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. This exemption shall not, however, protect the driver of any such vehicle from the consequence of a reckless disregard of the safety of others. N.C. Gen. Stat. §20-145.
Even though they are permitted to do these things legally, emergency responders are still required to use reasonable care, and act in a way that prevents harm from being inflicted on other motorists and pedestrians. For example, emergency vehicles should have both their lights and sirens on. In addition, although speeding is permitted, they should not speed through a red light but rather approach the intersection cautiously.
North Carolina Drivers Obligations
Any emergency responder, or utility worker, who pulls drivers over, who assists stranded motorists, or who is working on the side of the road, and a highway in particular, puts themself at risk by being on the side of a highway while cars are speeding by.
North Carolina, like many other states, has a Move Over law. The purpose of the Move Over law is to decrease that risk, to protect emergency personnel and utility workers who are stopped on a highway. The law requires that, if possible, drivers slow down and move one lane over from the stopped emergency vehicle. If it is not possible to safely move over one lane, or there are not multiple lanes, then drivers are expected to slow down significantly. The emergency vehicle should be stopped and have its lights flashing so that drivers can see the vehicle and understand that there are emergency responders, or utility workers, working on the side of the highway.
The Move Over law is good for highways and more rural areas but it doesn’t necessarily apply in a big city, like Charlotte, North Carolina. Drivers are expected to be paying attention to the road at all times and if they hear a siren or see flashing lights, then they should safely pull over and stop until the emergency vehicle has passed. The only time this is not necessary is when driving on a four-lane highway with a median. In that situation, cars who are traveling in the opposite direction of the emergency vehicle are not required to pull over and stop.
Crashes Involving Emergency Vehicles and Other Drivers
In a typical car accident case, a driver exceeding the speed limit will be found, at least partially, at fault for an accident. In the case of an emergency vehicle responding to an emergency, the same is not true.
Like any other car accident, a finding of fault will hinge on negligence and reasonable care. If the emergency vehicle driver acted negligently, then he/she could be held liable for causing an accident. While responders are permitted to violate the law when responding to an emergency, they are still required to ensure the safety of the public. They, like all North Carolina drivers, are expected to drive using reasonable care.
In the situation where police choose to chase a suspect through a street fair full of people in a large city, like Charlotte, it could be argued that they were not using reasonable care, that they were not acting in a manner necessary to ensure the public’s safety; and that therefore they were acting negligently. The specifics of the situation would of course come into play. Police chasing a suspect who stole a pack of gum from a convenience store would be more likely to be found negligent then police pursuing a suspect who had just committed a murder.
If the driver of the non-emergency vehicle was partially to blame then, in North Carolina which follows the contributory negligence doctrine, then there would likely be no recovery even if the emergency responder was found negligent. For example, if an emergency vehicle had its siren on and its light flashing, and a driver could safely slow down and pull over but failed to, then the driver of the car would be at least partially at fault for the accident. Under the contributory negligence doctrine, if the party seeking damages is found to be partially at fault (even 1%), then that party might be precluded from recovering any damages.
Why Do I Need a Charlotte Law Firm?
Car accident cases are fact intensive, and those involving emergency responders can be even more difficult to navigate. The Charlotte, NC based lawyers at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC are experienced car accident attorneys who can help you understand your rights and whether or not you have damages and should proceed with a claim. Please contact our office at 704-714-1450. There is no fee for an initial consultation.