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Distracted Drivers Put Emergency Crews in Danger

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Distracted drivers are a major hazard for emergency crews trying to save lives; Distracted drivers are a major hazard for emergency crews trying to save lives;
RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) - Paramedics and emergency workers are trained to run towards danger; now they're training to run away from one of the biggest dangers on the road: distracted drivers. Could you be putting these workers in danger?

Mini-van moms, distracted dads and texting teens: some of us are doing everything except paying attention to those trying to save lives.

ABC 8News anchor Amy Lacey rode along with the Richmond Ambulance Authority to uncover the growing problem.

"It's sometimes very frustrating and emotionally draining for us because we know how critical it is and other drivers don't," says Lt. Lo Menzies, an Assistant Field Operations Supervisor who has been a paramedic for 12 years.

During their time on the road Menzies and Lacey saw drivers texting at intersections, blaring loud music and talking on the phone. A bicyclist was weaving through traffic in front of the ambulance. Many people on the road were doing everything but listening to the siren.

"That's more and more common," Menzies says.

Across town, AAA Mid-Atlantic Spokesperson Martha Meade gets heated when we bring the issue to her.

"Every millisecond you're waiting for that ambulance to come to you and it can't come to you because someone's sending a text about being late for dinner," she describes a scenario that could happen when an ambulance is held back because of a distracted driver.

She adds that distracted driving has eclipsed drunk driving as the number one concern on the road in every recent poll, but the same people who worry about it admit they often multi-task because the wheel too.

Janet Brooking, Executive Director of Drive SMART Virginia is also aware of the problem distracted drivers have become for ambulances.

"As a society we don't seem to show the respect toward emergency vehicles that we have in the past," she says.

She adds that drivers these days have a lot of bad habits.

"They're eating.... they're drinking.... they're texting.... they're talking on the phone."

Because of everything happening on the road, the Richmond Ambulance Authority includes a lot of driving in its training. During a "road rally" exercise, recruits maneuver through the City where other drivers may be paying attention or not.

"In an emergency situation, it's actually not our emergency, it's the patient's emergency. So we need to get there safely," explains Rob Lawrence, RAA Chief Operating Officer.

Senator George Barker of Alexandria who was instrumental in the passage of Virginia's texting while driving law says it's become a social issue. People are doing more all the time, especially in the car.

"Clearly we want to be fairly responsive on these types of issues," he says.

He knows that what it's doing to first-responders is critical.

"We do have a large coalition of people who are very passionate and committed to addressing distracted driving issues and we are going to be looking at other options there."

Realizing that distracted driving is a growing problem on city streets, the Richmond Ambulance Authority has taken its own safety to the next level. These days every ambulance is fitted with a black box that records every move in case there's an accident. Data from it was used to charge the driver of an SUV in an ambulance-involved crash at Belvidere and Broad in March 2010.

The RAA also knows drivers are tuning out visual and audio cues, so that's where something called a rumbler or howler comes in.

"Drivers who are unable to actually hear the frequency of the tones will feel the vibrations on the ground as the ambulance approaches," explains Menzies.

RAA crews say they're driving on the defense, but you need to do your part too. You just never know whose life is at risk.

"It could be a child in cardiac arrest, you don't know who's in the back of the ambulance. It could be a very sick patient someone that someone loves."

When you don't pull over for an ambulance or other emergency vehicle, you're also breaking Virginia's Right of Way law. It's considered reckless driving, and anyone convicted faces a minimum $250 fine.

Copyright 2014 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond

How often do you feel distracted while driving? Would you say that distracted drivers are a big problem on Central Virginia roadways? Leave a comment here or weigh in on Amy's Facebook page.
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