Those green firefighter lights aren’t a decoration

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A sign educates motorists on the meaning of flashing green lights in vehicles

It’s an all-too-familiar sight – a speeding ambulance or firetruck is approaching, and amidst a long lineup of pulled-over cars is one that keeps driving, oblivious to what’s going on. It’s easy to imagine how much worse the problem is when the first responder is in their personal vehicle, using a single flashing green light instead of the brilliant red and blue flashing lights. 

In 2017, Ontario’s Bill 174 made changes to an old law that specified only police vehicles (not firetrucks or ambulances) could use blue flashing lights in addition to red flashing lights to indicate an emergency. This decision was made in part because it was deemed that motorists are more likely to pull over and heed the authority of emergency vehicles if all emergency vehicles use the same light colours as police vehicles. After all, few motorists would dare disobey the police. 

It’s safe to assume that if changes made by Bill 174 were put in place to acknowledge that fire and ambulance vehicles do not get the respect warranted by the severity of the emergencies to which they respond, then personal vehicles with a small green flashing light surely get less respect. In small communities such as North Dundas, fires and other emergencies requiring a response from the Fire Department are the responsibility of volunteer firefighters. When they respond to a call, they may be on their way from work, a family gathering, or their own bed. Being able to get to the station or the scene quickly can literally make the difference between life and death for someone experiencing the most tragic day of their life. 

Why do people ignore these lights? Logically, it has to be either indifference or ignorance. To combat indifference to the flashing green lights, fire departments have often used the campaign of “it could be your house we are going to”. This message, while likely effective at encouraging motorists to get out of the way when they see a firefighter, can perhaps be seen as a commentary on the selfishness of many people. Motorists should be able to make the right choice and pull over even if it helps someone else, rather than themselves. But we nevertheless must cater to people’s self-centred natures in order to guarantee a clear path of travel for firefighters. 

The other reason motorists may not pull over for a firefighter displaying a flashing green light is ignorance. This could be ignorance of what the flashing green light means, or ignorance of the fact that there is a firefighter behind them in the moment owing to another problem, such as distracted driving. 

Winchester Fire Chief, Dan Kelly, weighed in on the green lights issue. “People all recognize a police car and a firetruck,” said Chief Kelly. “But they don’t recognize the green light as well.” Chief Kelly explained that he does not think any educational campaign could fully inform everyone about the green lights and what they mean. He also pointed out that the Township already has a number of street signs placed in various locations that attempt to educate motorists. One problem that education can’t fix, however, is ignorance on the road. “A lot of people don’t look in their rear-view mirror if you’re following them,” said Chief Kelly. He explained that often when responding to a call, oncoming cars will pull over, but cars directly in front of him will not. He also explained that motorists tend to have more respect for the green flashing light at night, probably because it’s more visible. People have been getting better over the years at reacting to the green light, but there is still much progress to be made. 

Want to help do your part to make sure firefighters can do their jobs? Know the law, pay attention behind the wheel, and have compassion for what someone else is going through. Someone else will almost certainly be glad you cared. 

 

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