The Fallacy of Speed and Emergency Response

One of the oft-cited complaints about any sort of traffic calming treatment (speed bumps, narrowing streets, etc. etc.) is ‘what about emergency response?’ This has become something of a knee-jerk response, and it’s said with such seeming authority that it seems impolite, at the very least, to question it, even if it means we allow our local streets to become a source of daily unpleasantness and danger to accommodate what are statistically very rare needs (and there has been some good work on so-called “emergency response friendly” traffic calming).

After all, what individual, when questioned, wouldn’t intuitively want to be whisked to the hospital as fast as possible, or have fire crews sent racing to their house with minimal delay? I began thinking differently on this topic after meeting Nadine Levick at a traffic conference last fall. Over lunch, Nadine, a tireless crusader on a subject outside of most people’s purview, noted to me, according to one survey, riding in an ambulance, per mile, was one of the most dangerous things a person can do. And not simply because of, as you might imagine, clueless drivers not noticing an ambulance blazing through an intersection — but often because of unsafe actions by drivers themselves, as well as alarmingly substandard ambulance design (ambulances are not regulated by NHTSA for the crash protection of the occupants in the back; she’s got loads of horrific slides of the “boxes” having flown off the vehicle in a crash, and I’d urge you to otherwise delve into the site). The underlying sense I got from her was that of a sort of macho heroic undertone to emergency response, albeit shot through with the best of intentions, to get to or from the emergency with greatest possible haste — damn the consequences.

In any case, I thought of this again today thanks to an excellent article at Slate, by two medical personnel, that points out something that Levick was getting it: Despite the notion we may have that lives are at stake and a delay of a few minutes will be the crucial difference (isn’t it better for the speeding up to happen at the hospital end, or to work on better preventative and monitoring measures?), it turns out, as the authors note, “not to be backed up by good science'; and, what’s more, as they note, the risks taken in fast transport (to those outside the vehicle as well) may exceed whatever medical benefits are gained.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 12th, 2010 at 2:09 pm and is filed under Traffic safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

14 Responses to “The Fallacy of Speed and Emergency Response”

  1. Beany Says:

    Here in San Diego County, efforts are being made to narrow various roadways and allocate the space to other modes (bikes/peds) and the argument frequently comes up on why that narrowing is a terrible idea: the emergency crew won’t be able to get through. But I find that argument so disingenuous because cities with narrow alley ways (like the east coast) seem to manage fine. What about sky scrapers, how are firefighters/ambulance crew supposed to get to the upper floors during an emergency? Do they have ladders that tall? And finally, San Diego in its effort to balance the budget is cutting emergency services so now firefighters have to travel further distances to get to a site.

    I haven’t managed to articulate how I feel about this idiotic argument without sounding angry, but the sites you linked gives me a lot of data on how to form a good argument.

  2. Omri Says:

    In Massachusetts EMTs are trained to drive swiftly to a call, but to drive slowly on the way back. It is safer for the patient, for the EMT in the back with him, and for the community, and it’s still faster than normal driving. Average speed in the city, counting red lights, is 12MPH. An ambulance can drive at 15MPH and beat that average speed simply because it can treat red lights as stop signs.

    So in short, apart from speed bumps, which EMTs hate with a passion, traffic calming is no hindrance to ambulance crews.

  3. Mark Says:

    Now that they removed the speed bumps on the main road into our subdivision and used an otherwise completely unnecessary stop sign to slow traffic, I can state that speed bumps are an unnecessary annoyance (ever tried hauling furniture in a trailer over them?), and that if people would just drive with both eyes open, slow down for backing cars and the rare non-TV watching, non-X-box playing kids on the street, there wouldn’t be a need for draconian, unnecessary measures to slow drivers down, because they’d drive a responsible speed according to the current conditions.

  4. Josh R Says:

    “if people would just drive with both eyes open”

    If people acted in a sane, rational manner all the time there would be a hell of a lot more annoying things we could do away with besides speed bumps. It ain’t gonna happen, some people are jerks and they ruin things for everybody else, welcome to the human race.

  5. Matt Health Riordan Says:

    Great article guys, keep up the good work!

  6. aaron Says:

    Off topic: Our changing past.

  7. Yokota Fritz Says:

    Something I like to bring up as that a significant portion of fire, paramedic, ambulance and police calls are responding to traffic collisions. If the medical or fire emergency never happens in the first place, the speeding ambulance trip is completely eliminated.

    @Beany makes the same point about narrow east coast streets that Dan Burden likes to talk about as well, though Dan is a little more profane and humorous in his traffic calming presentations.

  8. Beany Says:


    Tom: Thought you’d like a picture of this sign I took last night in the neighborhood of South Park in San Diego:

  9. Michael Prager Says:

    While I am generally supportive of speed bumps and traffic calming, it can increases traffic on the nearby arterial streets because people no longer want to take the short cut. I used to live on a busy arterial street and it was terrible. It would have been better if people could take the side streets too but they could not get through on those for several reasons including some traffic calming. Increased traffic on arterials could reduced accidents due to slower driving speeds but could increase them if you have more cars going fast down very busy streets. Has this issue ever been explored? Traffic calming seems a bit like a NIMBY effort that pushes traffic elseware and causes problems for others.

  10. Dan H Says:

    If people would simply wake-up, stop texting, talking, eating and everything else while driving and follow the simple rules to pull over to the right for sirens and lights. There would be less problems.

  11. Josh R Says:

    Actually Michael, a lot of traffic calming devices get put in because of people seeking shortcuts from nearby arterial streets. The larger road gets congested during rush hour and drivers start looking for ways around, but people living on the relatively quiet side streets don’t want drivers cutting through because they often drive faster then people who live on the street. (As a matter of fact, they tend to drive as if they were on the arterial street they left, funny that…) So they complain and traffic calming devices get put in to slow the through traffic and hopefully make the short cut less attractive.

    If it looks like a NIMBY effort, that’s because it is one, although in this case it’s one I agree with. If I choose to take a shortcut through a neighborhood to avoid traffic on a main road, I drive like I would want people to drive in my neighborhood, following the speed limit and being respectful.

  12. Paul Barter Says:

    I used to think it odd that ambulances in Singapore (where I live) almost never drive at high speed. They also wait at red lights, even when their lights are flashing. After reading this post (and the slate article) I realise that this Singapore policy is probably a wise one.

  13. Maia Says:

    I have noticed where I live, that most of the traffic calming (in the forms of speed bumps) are on the “cut-through” streets adjacent to major or minor arteries. I hardly think that they reduce the number of cars traveling on a street, but they do reduce the speed, which of course, is the point.

    I agree with the others who said there wouldn’t be a need for these devices if drivers were paying attention to their surroundings. I don’t like them, but I see the need for them and understand why residents want them for their streets. It is usually the ones who were speeding, who live elsewhere, who complain about them.

    Well, get over it.

  14. Peter Smith Says:

    just want to point out that a speed bump is not the same thing as a speed hump.

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