EMERGENCY WARNING LIGHTS: Are they really protecting YOU and making the emergency scene safer or making YOUR vehicle a target?
An article by Retired NYSP EVOC Instructor Robert J. Faugh - (Present NYS BMP & US DOT EVOC Instructor ) This article updated 1-20-06
Since the early 1950s, when the Beacon Ray replaced the single flashing light, we have seen more and more lights added to our emergency vehicles. It was believed that if 35 watt bulbs were good then 100 watt must be better. If two lights made it safer then six must make it really safe. How about a million candlepower strobe system? We have reached the point where the warning lights are becoming the problem at emergency scenes and traffic stops, making the area less safe and actually causing accidents! More bright warning lights DO NOT make ANY scene safer!
Studies of warning lights by the California Highway Patrol (CHP), Illinois State Police (ISP), University of Minnesota, NY State Police, NYS DOT and the US DOT, within the last few years have addressed the following factors: light output, flash rate, color and reaction to light emitted. In 1999 a five-state federally funded study also addressed the problem of warning lights when parked next to the roadway. (Fire/police/EMS/DOT/Tow Trucks) They identified two major problems. First, No emergency responder sets traffic control or warnings the same at a scene. Secondly, the public has no idea what to do when confronted with numerous colors of lights on vehicles parked every which way in the highway!
Most state Vehicle and Traffic Law requires if the emergency vehicle is parked in violation of the normal parking laws some type of warning must be displayed from that vehicle. Minimal lighting would be legal.
Every emergency vehicle has more than enough warning lights and is equipped so that if it is the only vehicle parked at a scene, the warning light law is complied with. The problem is that when there are six or seven emergency vehicles at a scene. When all the warning lights are left on, the area actually becomes unsafe due to all of the blinding and distracting lights. When you set up a "carnival" too much attention will be drawn to it. Officer safety is also an issue. All the flashing lights can distract the officer and also blind the officer while attempting to observe what is going in a vehicle or on the scene. The flashing lights also blind other motorist who then cannot see the officer. More lights DO NOT make the scene safer!
What effect do the flashing lights have on a motorist who is stopped in front of the police vehicle with all the lights glaring into their vehicle as they sit there waiting for their ticket? The police vehicle sits there with the flashing headlights blinding on-coming traffic. Put yourself in that position for a second, don't you think the situation would be less tense and less stressful without the warning lights flashing into the violators car? These same cops sit behind a disabled vehicle with minimal rear lights on, forwards lights off, what is the difference?
The ISP & CHP Studies questioned the use of light bars on their police cars and the safety of the officers while engaged in their duties next to the roadway. The collision rate for emergency vehicles displaying lights while parked next to the highway were two and one-half times higher for the same 100,000 miles driven than for non-emergency vehicles. Illinois removed the light bars from 50% of their cars and their study showed the cars without the roof-mounted bars were involved in 65% fewer accidents both parked and moving.
Many highway patrols have numerous "slick top" vehicles with a flashing lights in the rear window and no roof mounted lights. Many departments are going to the "slick top" cars for added safety, better gas mileage and increased productivity (more tickets).
More and more "slick top" cars are being used in New York state by local police, (Greece & Webster PD) sheriffs (Monroe & Onondagua) and NYSP. Roof-mounted light bars have their place but in many cases are over used and do not obtain the required protection. They also give the officer operating the vehicle a false sense of security that the lights will somehow protect them both moving and parked, which is not true.
What about color? Red lights send a message, emergency, stop and also tend to draw persons to the area of the emergency. The psychological reaction to red is rage, anger and hostility. Red lights invoke erratic behavior from other motorists. You are being subjected to the red warning light effects also.
The knowledge of human perception calls into question the use of red warning lights when the vehicle is parked in or next to the highway. Instead of warning people away, the red emergency lights actually draw drivers towards the lights. This so-called moth effect refers to "a state of narrowed attention associated with excessive concentration on some object or task with the resulting in a loss of voluntary control over response." People drive where they look! Drugged, drunk, elderly and fatigued drivers will drive right into the rear of the vehicle in the road and drive off the road to hit the vehicle parked on the shoulder that is displaying the red warning lights. This happens more than we like to admit. How many close calls have you had?
Amber lights are legal on emergency vehicles. The amber light also sends a very specific message to those who view it: danger, caution & stay away. A driver who is drugged, drunk, elderly, tired, fatigued or confused will avoid the vehicle displaying the amber light. Amber also travels through fog, rain or snow much farther than red, blue or clear. In California ALL emergency vehicles must display at least one amber light to the rear. Federal ambulance specs required one amber light on the rear of all new ambulance. NFPA fire apparatus "blocking mode" status recommend AMBER lights. (Phoenix Az allows ONLY amber when parked) Why are fog lights amber? Why does the FAA require amber on airport vehicles? Why does DOT use amber?
The NY State Police conducted tests on the vehicles equipped with the "Street Hawk" light bar back in 1991. They now have an amber lens on the driver's side rear flashing light position in the bar. 15 to 20 Cars were struck while parked on the side of the road with only red lights on.
Other New York State agencies reported between 75 and 90 vehicle struck while parked NEXT TO the highway annually. After amber was installed, and the rotating red lights were shut off, Not one NYSP car was struck in three years while displaying the amber light with the rotating reds shut off! As time has moved along the troopers are again leaving the rotating reds on along with the amber and more cars are being struck! NYSP have equipped most of their cars that work the interstates with "arrow sticks" in the back window. The 2002 NYS State bid "Federal Vista" light bar has a built in arrow stick. It works more effectively when the red rotators are shut off by sending one message - caution, danger and stay away! Inside the trunk one light is now amber.
What is the answer? For parking situations we should limit the use of the warning lights. Amber is the color to use to warn traffic. Shut off the red, blue and clear lights. Use the "arrow stick" as it was designed to be used.
Warn only from the direction that the traffic is coming towards the scene. Another reason to limit the amount of warning lights at a scene is the effect is has on the crowd. It's a known fact that the red, blue & clear lights at a scene will draw and effect a crowd. Shut them off and many will walk away.
Park your vehicles in a safest position possible, which should be at a slight angle 50 to 100 feet back from the next vehicle. (V& T Stops, stop at least 30' back - you are a smaller target the further away you get from the violator). The parking of vehicles is a whole other article. Just turning the wheels will not do it. Equip the rear of your vehicles with at least one amber light to send that message caution, danger & stay away. Equip you vehicle with an "arrow stick". The arrow stick light is more effective when used without the rotating flashing red, blue or clear lights. The more your vehicle looks like a DOT, tow truck or utility truck the less chance you vehicle will be struck. Be careful how you use your headlights, spot lights and other flood lamps, shut off the flashing headlights. You may blind on-coming drivers and also people working on the scene including yourself. Make your emergency scene look like a "work zone" and you will have a lot less problems, "close calls" and accidents.
Officer Safety: The officer should have the option to approach the violator or suspects vehicle from the passengers side of the car. Many states promote this, Texas and Virginia are two that do. The officer has a better view of everything in the front seat, is a smaller target. The violator doesn't expect the officer to show up there and the officer is in a safer position if one of the drugged, drunk, tired, elderly or confused drivers runs into the officers car or the violators car.
Many Monroe Co. NY agencies use this limited light policy at scenes and especially on the Interstate highways. The Rush Fire Dept & Ambulance Service has been using this procedure for 15 years.
The vehicle closest to on-coming traffic stops several hundred feet prior to the scene, parks at an angle and displays only rear-facing lights, amber on the left and red on the right ("arrow stick" is used if equipped). Other responding emergency vehicles (fire/EMS/police) shut down their lights and park in a safe position. All vehicles are then protected by the larger 20 ton fire apparatus. They don't need ANY warning lights!
The results have been much more control over the traffic that is moving past the accident or situation and less confusion - they don't have the flashing lights to look at. The other lane keeps moving without the gapers block or "rubbernecking". The traffic slow to 40 MPH or so and keep on going. When distracting warning lights are shut down, it is much easier to see. They use this at EVERY call not just highway incidents. Everyone calms down when the majority of the warning lights are shut off! Anyone working near traffic should wear a bright (lime-yellow) with reflective white stripped vest.
Be safe out there.