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Sunnyside man instrumental in drafting new emergency vehicle legislation

Sometimes it takes a life altering event for change to be made. This was the case with Sunnyside resident John Cullen.

Cullen was instrumental in the creation of a new piece of legislation that will increase fines for people who knowingly fail to yield to emergency vehicles.

Bill 5038 passed the state Senate by a unanimous vote this past Monday. It is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire. The bill increases the fines for drivers who willfully disregard an emergency vehicle from the currently penalty of $101 to a fine of no less than $500 and a the person in question would be guilty of a traffic infraction.

State Sen. Jim Honeyford of Sunnyside, a former Ellensburg police officer, was the sponsor of the bill, which will take effect 90 days after the adjournment of the 2005 legislative session, unless it is vetoed by Gregoire.

"If this bill saves even one life, it will be worth the effort to pass it this year," said Honeyford.

The journey for Cullen, who is a young 46 years of age, began in June 2003 when he suffered a tear in his aorta while golfing at Canyon Lakes Golf Course in Kennewick.

"My aorta split when I was out golfing," said Cullen. "I was very fortunate."

Cullen was rushed to Kennewick General Hospital, where he was immediately taken to Kadlec Medical Center in Richland for open-heart surgery. Cullen said the doctors got to the tear in his aorta just in time. Cullen said the tear in his aorta was a congenial defect that finally caught up with him.

But what had happened to Cullen on that day at the golf course was just a blur.

"Because I had lost my short term memory for while," he said.

The incident became clearer in September 2003 when Cullen was visiting his doctor. The doctor told him the story of how he barely made it to the hospital in time for open-heart surgery because several motorists had refused to move out of the way for the ambulance he was in.

"It (the conversation with the doctor) made me investigate," said Cullen.

Cullen said another reason why he decided to try and do something about people not yielding to emergency vehicles is that he knows how close he was to death and doesn't want others to be put in the same situation.

"It is just very hard for me to understand why people wouldn't get out of the way," said Cullen.

Cullen then embarked on a research campaign about just how many people don't yield to emergency vehicles. Cullen spoke with an ambulance company in Yakima, which over a two-week period responded to 222 calls, of which 65 of them involved occurrences of failure to yield to an ambulance using full lights and sirens. Cullen said he found that statistic to be alarming and decided to pursue the matter even further. Cullen said he was told some "amazing" stories by the ambulance crew of what they run across during emergency calls.

Cullen then approached Rep. Dan Newhouse and Honeyford about his concerns.

"They did a great job of putting some legislation together to support the issue," said Cullen.

Cullen said one of the things he found amazing in his research is that up until now there was a larger fine for someone driving away from a gas pump without paying than there was for a person not yielding to an emergency vehicle.

The original bill proposed by Honeyford had people who intentionally didn't yield to an emergency vehicle facing a maximum of one year in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.

Cullen said he would have liked to have seen Honeyford's original bill passed, but he is more than happy with the end results.

"I honestly hope it never gets tested," said Cullen. "I hope people get out of the way."

Cullen is also working with the Yakima Traffic Safety Council and is trying to help secure funding for video cameras to be placed in emergency vehicles to show just what kind of a problem people not yielding to emergency vehicles can be.

Cullen said the real point of his efforts is to try and educate people about how little time emergency responders have to get someone in need to the hospital.

Sunnyside Fire Department Captain Ryan Case said while the new legislation is good, he doesn't necessarily know how it is going to be enforced.

"I don't think I have ever had anyone who has intentionally not yielded," said Case.

Case said most of the cases he has ran into over the years of people not yielding to emergency vehicles are because drivers had their radios playing too loud or they weren't paying attention.

Case said there have been incidents where he, as an emergency responder, has been right behind drivers and they didn't realize the ambulance was behind them. But as soon as the acknowledgment is made, the driver usually quickly pulls over, said Case.

Case said there are a few simple tips for drivers to remember when coming across an emergency vehicle. On the interstate, Case says drivers should stay in the right lane. In town, people need to pay attention to what is going on around them when driving.

"If you can't pull to the right like you should, you just need to stop," said Case.

When coming across an emergency vehicle at an intersection, Case recommends drivers just stay put. Case said the ambulance driver will pick a direction to go, if the other driver just stays in one spot.

"When we are going to the hospital time is of the essence," said Case.

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