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The Sounds of Sirens

The Sounds of Sirens

New technology aims at taking the guesswork out of clearing the way for emergency vehicles. Wynter Murdoch reports.

Trying to locate the source of a siren when you are in a vehicle can be stressful. Worse, it can delay the progress of an emergency vehicle if confused motorists do not quickly and safely move out of the way, as required by law. To try to alleviate the problem, motor manufacturers have begun to develop in-car connectivity systems that warn road users when emergency vehicles are in the vicinity.

Among the first to test recently developed technology is Ford which, in the UK, has demonstrated a system that sends a signal from an ambulance, fire engine or police car directly to vehicles in its path, so that drivers know exactly from where the siren is coming, and how far away it is. According to a statement issued by Ford’s Research Department, in Britain nearly 500 emergency vehicles are involved in road accidents each year while responding to call-outs. Though no comparable statistics are readily available in South Africa, road safety experts here believe the number to be substantially higher.

On its website, Arrive Alive reminds motorists that precious time lost by emergency vehicles in getting to the scene of traffic accidents or medical emergencies could mean the difference between life and death for victims of crashes or illness. The organisation says first responders are usually well-trained in advanced driving techniques and their focus is on the safety of others. “Drivers of emergency vehicles have no intention or desire to force other motorists off the roads. The everyday road user in return needs to make way for them in a safe manner and not create another emergency by making wrong moves. Sometimes the biggest risk for responders is just getting to the scene of a road crash or other medical emergency!”

According to Arrive Alive, the biggest threat is the motorist who panics at the sound of a siren. “Many drivers are confused about what to do and either come to a stop abruptly at the wrong place or manoeuvre dangerously, threatening the safety of not only the emergency vehicle, but other road users. And some drivers don’t give way at all, especially during rush hour.”

While regulation 308 (1) (h) of South Africa’s Road Traffic Ordinance says “no person driving or having a vehicle on a public road shall fail to give an immediate and absolute right of way to an emergency vehicle sounding a device or bell or which displays an identification lamp,” drivers of emergency vehicles say many motorists appear to be ignorant of the law.

Ford’s system – which provides drivers with audible and visual alerts in the instrument cluster – includes advice regarding the best path to follow to timeously and safely move out of an emergency vehicle’s path.

“Time is precious for emergency services and this technology could help to shave valuable seconds off their journeys by advising motorists what to do, based on inputs received from the vehicle’s sensors,” says Christian Ress, a supervisor for advanced engineering at Ford’s Automated Driving Division in Europe.

The company recently demonstrated its Emergency Vehicle Warning technology at UK Autodrive, a government-sponsored initiative which focuses on connected cars and which is supported by 16 technology and automotive businesses, local authorities and academic institutions.

“Connected technologies like these, which help to improve communication between vehicles, could help us get to people even more quickly when they really need us,” says Peter Allington, a Road Casualty Officer attached to the West Midlands Fire Service.

The system works by sending a signal from the emergency vehicle to cars travelling in the vicinity, highlighting the direction from which the vehicle is approaching and indicating available paths for motorists to follow to avoid obstructing its progress.

Ford is also developing a system that can alert drivers of any vehicles to potential accidents when approaching crossroads. Called Intersection Collision Warning, the system monitors the location of vehicles in the vicinity of intersections and calculates the risk of a crash. If the risk is high then an audio and visual warning tells both drivers to slow down or stop. For example, it can alert drivers when a car approaching from another direction has ignored a red traffic light.

Previously, as part of the trials, Ford showcased systems that warn when cars ahead – which may be hidden behind a bend in the road, have stopped or slowed down – as well as technology that shows how cars can synchronise with traffic lights to “ride the green wave,” improving journey times through urban areas. Trials of all four technologies are set to continue until the end of next year, when they will be considered for integration in the company’s production models.

Emergency vehicle safety tips

  • If you hear a siren, assume an emergency vehicle is coming your way and give yourself time to plan a safe manoeuvre to move out of the way. Keep calm, look and listen;
  • Turn off any music or radio that is playing in your car so you can hear the siren;
  • Look for somewhere safe to slow down and pull over. Use your indicators to show your intentions to avoid confusion with other road users;
  • Make sure you leave enough space for the emergency vehicle to pass. Be aware there may be more than one emergency vehicle in the convoy;
  • Stay safe, stay legal. Don’t go through a red light – and do not attempt to overtake an emergency vehicle – unless directed to do so by a traffic officer or policeman;
  • On highways, emergency services will use the yellow lane if all others are blocked, so never drive in the lane or obstruct it in any way;
  • Avoid following emergency vehicles closely – it is dangerous and may be illegal!

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