Honeyford's bill ups the ante to improve safety for emergency vehicles

OLYMPIA - Don't think you need to pull aside for ambulances or police vehicles? Well, you might want to think again. The penalty is about to go up.

Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard a bill, sponsored by Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside), which increases the penalties for drivers who intentionally fail to yield to emergency or police vehicles from a traffic infraction to a gross misdemeanor.

The current penalty for failure to yield is a $101 ticket. Under Honeyford's bill, Senate Bill 5038, that penalty would remain the same unless a person negligently, intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly fails to yield or move over for emergency vehicles or police cars. In that case, the penalty could increase to a maximum of a year in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.

"Since 2001, 33 police officers nationwide have been killed by motor vehicles or struck while standing along the side of the roadway during a traffic stop because people failed to slow down or move over when approaching those flashing lights," said Honeyford, a former Ellensburg police officer. "We don't know how many people have lost their lives due to drivers who fail to get out of the way for ambulances trying to get those people to the hospital. Maybe the threat of a larger fine or a stay in jail would help people remember this vital rule of the road."

The idea for Honeyford's bill came from a constituent and neighbor, John Cullen, who learned from his doctor that he barely made it to the hospital in time for emergency open-heart surgery when cars refused to move out of the way for his ambulance. Cullen traveled to Olympia this past Tuesday to testify in favor of Honeyford's bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Cullen told the committee he was rushed to Kennewick General Hospital for a suspected heart attack after he collapsed on the golf course. The doctor at Kennewick General found Cullen was suffering from a dissected aorta, and losing blood at a rapid pace. He joined Cullen in the ambulance and they raced to Kadlec Medical Center to perform emergency open-heart surgery.

While Cullen doesn't remember much of the situation, his doctor relayed his frustration and fear that Cullen would not make it to Kadlec in time to save his life due to vehicles failing to move aside.

Cullen told the committee that once he recovered, he met with Ann McCarger of Advanced Life Systems to find out the extent of the problem. In a two-week period, the company reported 301 dispatches, 222 of which were "Code 3," meaning full lights and sirens were employed. During those 222 runs, drivers reported 65 incidences of "failure to yield." Twelve of the calls required emergency transport to the hospital and, during four of those runs, drivers reported failure to yield.

Representatives of the Washington State Council of Police and Sheriffs and Washington State Patrol Troopers Association also testified that Honeyford's bill is long overdue. Not one person signed up to testify against the measure.

SB 5038 is co-sponsored by the Democratic chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and several other members of the state Senate.

The committee will consider some amendments to the measure, but the chairman assured Honeyford the bill would likely be approved.


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