First responders also have leeway on road 

James P. from Tiburon asks this week's question:

Q: "I read your article last week on garbage trucks. Are you saying that if they hit me while driving down the wrong side of the street, I am at fault? Are they free of fault? And what about police cars? They too never seem to follow the rules we all have to live by. Are they exempt from the 'rules of the road?'"

A: Before I answer James' question, I need to correct a typo from last week's article: California Vehicle Code Section 21059, governing rubbish and garbage trucks, was mistakenly cited as 21509. This was pointed out to me at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's Volunteer Appreciation Event last week.

At the event, I was also asked to answer a question as to whether Section 21059 allowed garbage trucks to turn right on a roadway without moving as close as practicable to the right-hand curb. The answer is no. California Vehicle Code Section 22100, which governs turning movements, is not listed as one of the code sections that garbage trucks are exempted from. For those who do not know, when you turn right at any intersection, you must move your vehicle as close as practicable to the right-hand curb so as to make sure that you do not inadvertently turn right directly across the path of a bike that may be going by on your right-hand side.

Back to James' questions. First, Vehicle Code Section 21059 does not give garbage trucks a free pass on liability if they harm someone. What the exemption does is free them from fear of receiving a ticket if they do not act in conformity with the limited vehicle code sections enumerated within the statute (such as driving down the street the wrong way).

Section 21059's language clearly states that the exemption is not only limited to when the truck is actually engaged in picking up refuse (thereby inapplicable when the vehicle is being driven to and from work), but that, moreover, it does not relieve the driver from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all people using the highway. If the driver fails to do so, he or she can be held liable.

As far as emergency vehicles, the Legislature has recognized that emergency vehicles must be able to operate quickly and efficiently in order to save lives and fight crime. This requires that, under certain conditions, they be exempt from following most vehicle code regulations concerning speed, stop signs or stop lights, driving on the right-hand side of the road, yielding for pedestrians, etc.

California Vehicle Code Section 21055 Exemption for Authorized Emergency Vehicles states that if a emergency vehicle is being driven in response to an emergency call, while engaged in rescue operations, responding to a fire alarm or being used in the immediate pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law, the driver is exempt from observing the bulk of the regulations contained within the vehicle code so long as they are traveling "Code 3," which is with lights and sirens activated.

However, just as with the statute regarding refuse vehicles, Vehicle Code Section 21056 states that Section 21055 "does not relieve the driver of a vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons using the highway." Similarly, should officers go Code 3 without a valid purpose, they lose all of their privilege and their exemption.

I have reviewed dozens of cases in which people have been injured, and, regrettably, several killed when an emergency vehicle crashed into them while they were traveling through an intersection and, in one case, when a police car was traveling down a one way street the wrong way. Some of the cases were ones where the officer or Police Department had liability either because they did not have on both their lights and siren or they were recklessly abusing the exemption. We have also rejected cases for representation such as when the citizen driver couldn't hear the officer as they approached the intersection because they had on headphones.

Public safety employees have a hard enough time traveling through a dense, urban area. Be on the lookout for them as you approach intersections and obey Vehicle Code Section 21806 by yielding the right of way to emergency vehicles by pulling over to let them pass. As I have personally experienced, someday it may be you in that ambulance who needs to get to the hospital right away.


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