The (ab)use of emergency lights

Occasionally in my driving career I have seen a few police cars racing by with their flashing lights on only to shut them off once through a particular knot of traffic. It could have been the result of a canceled call, or it could have been simply to get through traffic. As a regular listener to police scanners, I have heard calls canceled or responders told to slow down because the response isn't as urgent as initially thought. I also always give emergency vehicles the right of way.

Twice in less than a week, I've seen the flashing lights come on for nothing more than lane changes. The first came last Wednesday, Sept. 28, when I was driving south on Route 128 at the North Shore Mall in Peabody. I saw the flashing blue lights of a police vehicle turn on a few cars ahead of me. That lane slowed to allow the vehicle to enter. Because my lane kept its speed, I eventually caught up to the police vehicle, which turned out to be a black pickup with a special cap on the back that had strobes built into the back of the cap. It wasn't the type of cap on the back of most passenger pickups. Aside from the strobes on the back that were white when shut off and blue when on, there were no other markings showing it was a police vehicle.

What's more, the truck had regular commercial plates, not blue state plates indicating it was a public safety vehicle. I immediately thought it was a sham perpetrated by the driver to get the traffic on the highway to slow so he could slip into the highway. Later that night I saw a very similar truck, also with a non-blue, non-state vehicle plate on the news at a police scene in Somerville where some type of explosive was found in a house. Since this truck's special cap shape matched the one I saw on the road, as did the placement and type of strobes in the back, I figured it must be a type of unmarked vehicle. OK. But there was still no need to turn on the lights.

Tonight, on my way out of the Tip O'Neill Tunnel, Boston Fire Engine 9 was coming up the on-ramp that used to be fed by the Ted Williams Tunnel outlet to Route 93 South. It, too, had its flashing lights on. I watched it as I tried to give it wide berth. The siren wasn't blaring, and the truck didn't seem to be in any hurry to change lanes. With a few quick movements thanks to fooled drivers, Engine 9 moved over the to right and shut off its emergency lights. It never turned them on again before exiting at Mass. Ave., and Melnea Cass Blvd. There was no emergency, just like the quasi police vehicle above.

The only reason I question this practice is that, like the old adage about the boy who cried wolf, people will eventually question whether they should give way or treat emergency vehicles like any other obnoxious driver trying to make it through traffic a little easier. The sad irony is whenever I talk to first responders about the challenges they face getting through traffic during a real emergency, one of them is the fact that many drivers don't clear intersections, don't pull over or cut them off. This practice of using the lights to get through traffic doesn't help. In fact it hurts. It makes it much less likely drivers are going to get out of the way, and with my luck it will be when I need the first responders most, God forbid.


Post a Comment