Michael Potts, CCEMT-P, is a risk and safety manager with MedStar Mobile Healthcare, based in Fort Worth, Texas.

He started his EMS career in 2001. During his time in EMS he took on various roles, including seven years as a field training officer and instructor. We asked Potts to share a few ambulance safety tips for ambulance drivers.

For starters, Potts teaches from the “FailSafe Standards,” something he said not only improves general driving skills but also “helps you become a better ambulance driver.”

Accidents happen. That’s a reality when you get behind the wheel of any vehicle. But there are patterns that emerge when looking at both fender benders and collisions, especially when it comes to ambulance safety. Understanding the patterns can help with crash prevention, Potts said.

After investigating accidents, he sees two common mistakes ambulance drivers make:

  1. “They are not looking far enough up the road,” Potts said. “If you look 20 to 40 seconds out, that’s going to give you enough reactive time — in case there is debris in the road.”
  2. His second tip is to use the four-second following rule. “If you have four seconds between you and vehicle in front, you will have enough time to make any maneuvers you need,” he said.

Drivers also tend to panic at the site of an ambulance coming into their rearview mirror, Potts said. To some degree, the brain just gets wired that way.

“When drivers see an ambulance, they slam on their brakes … because it’s human nature to stop,” he said. “People usually forget what they are taught and the decision they come up with is to stop.”

That’s why field training officers teach ambulance operators to anticipate the unexpected. Sure, having good mind-reading skills could come in handy, but there’s no easy way to know how drivers will react to a loud, scary ambulance.

“Drivers will either pull to the right, left or stop,” Potts said.

Plus, drivers usually get pretty anxious when full-on lights and sirens become involved, he added.

How distractions and intersections affect ambulance safety

We hear it on the news all the time. Some drivers flat out ignore ambulances. Potts attributes it to the plethora of distractions — from changing the radio station to kids in the backseat to the ubiquity of cell phones.

Ultimately the responsibility still falls on the ambulance operator to keep the crew and patients safe along with other drivers on the road.

During new hire orientation, Potts said he stresses ambulance safety because nearly all ambulance collisions are preventable, including those at intersections.

“It doesn’t matter what color the light is at the intersection, you make eye contact with every driver,” Potts said.

Even though drivers themselves may not acknowledge you, it’s important to still look at them.

Stopping distance matters for optimal safety

The EMS standard stopping distance presents an interesting mathematical equation. Hint: Toss deductive reasoning out the window. Doubling the driving speed more than doubles the stopping distance — it quadruples the distance.

first responder

Scott McConnell, BSN, RN, CEN, PHRN, NRP, EMS-I

A case in point is when traveling at 30 mph, allow 100 feet of stopping distance, according to EMS driving standards. When driving 60 mph, allow 426 feet of stopping distance — considered a universal EMS standard — said Relias Instructor Scott McConnell, RN, BSN, CEN, NRP.

Do you want to learn more about calculating stopping distances? McConnell suggests taking a look at this National Highway Traffic Safety Administration resource that includes a chart on breaking distance and driver reaction times.

Or, ambulance drivers can check out this Fire Apparatus Magazine article on stopping distances.

Traffic fatalities on the job are an unfortunate reality.

Some quick facts include:

  • 179 firefighters died from vehicle crashes from 2004 to 2013, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
  • 97 EMS technicians died in ambulance crashes from 1993 to 2010, according to the National EMS Memorial Service.
  • Fatal crashes among law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMS professionals combined were 2.5 to 4.8 times greater compared to the national average of all occupations, according to the Journal of Human Factors and Ergonomics Society

Remaining calm improves ambulance safety

Learning to stay calm while racing to an accident scene or to a mother about to deliver a baby seems like an impossible task, yet it’s so important for ambulance safety, Potts said.

Managing your nerves is an acquired skill that comes with experience. Thus, ambulance drivers with more experience typically have fewer crash incidents, Potts said.

Stresses from home and work also play into the stress of driving an ambulance, Potts said, not to mention whether your patient in back is clinging to life.

“Each person handles stress differently,” he said. “Understand the importance and value of what you’re doing so you can concentrate. In a sense, you want to shut down the noise.”

By learning ways to “slow things down,” it’s an effective stress management tool, he added.

We would like to hear from you. Share some practices you do each day to remain calm and dial down the stress when operating an ambulance.

Learn more in our course about ambulance safety, crew resource management and EMS culture of safety.