Lights, Siren and Due Regard
“Lights, siren and due regard” is a mantra Kentucky law enforcement officers hear during basic training.
Under KRS 189.910, law enforcement vehicles are classified as “emergency vehicles,” and as such, receive certain exemptions from traffic laws specified under KRS 189.940.
As an example, under subsection 1 of the statute, an officer is exempt from speed limits, so long as the officer is properly sounding a warning (as required under subsection 5), using lights and sirens. Officers are also exempt when escorting ambulances, according to the statute.
Some agencies have policy in place about how fast an officer may drive. The statute emphasizes that nothing relieves the officer from the duty to “operate the vehicle with due regard for the safety of all persons using the street or sidewalk.”
The statute requires an emergency-vehicle driver to slow down, and perhaps even stop, at traffic-control devices. Approaching drivers may be unaware that an emergency vehicle is approaching or know from which direction it is coming. At high rates of speed, motorists may not have time to react, especially if the sound of the siren and view of the lights are obstructed or deflected by obstacles.
Special circumstances should be kept in mind. For example, officers should always stop near a school bus with its lights and stop sign activated. A moving train cannot stop for emergency lights due to the physical momentum of the train. Officers should be aware of this while crossing railroad tracks. Additionally, it is illegal for citizens to drive over an unprotected fire hose under KRS 189.930(4), unless specifically directed to do so. Officers should always observe that rule as well, even when driving in an emergency. Damaging or stopping the flow of water in a charged hose line can prove extremely hazardous to firefighters handling that hose.
In addition to speeding, officers are permitted to stop or park an emergency vehicle in locations where vehicles are not normally permitted, so long as at least one emergency warning light is activated. A warning light should be in operation when an emergency vehicle is parked in a way that might obstruct traffic.
Most litigation that involves law enforcement and emergency driving occurs when officers are responding to an emergency or while in pursuit of a violator.
Pursuits are generally considered a seizure under the Fourth Amendment if the person injured is the violator. Accordingly, these matters are litigated in federal court under the “objective reasonableness” standard (Graham v. Connor 490 US 386:1989).
Other cases that involve a collision with a third party, might be litigated under state law as negligence. All such actions require the party bringing the lawsuit to satisfy four specific elements.
First, they must show the duty incumbent upon the emergency driver. Second, they must show a specific breach of that duty. Next, they must show damages, and finally, the plaintiff must demonstrate legal cause – a link between the breach of duty and damages.
For example, in Plummer v. Lake, 2014 WL 1513294 (Ky. App. 2014), an unpublished Kentucky Court of Appeals decision, officers were pursuing of a violator on a curvy state highway.
The violator was reported to be driving dangerously. When officers engaged with the driver, he fled at speeds up to an estimated 100 mph. Officers discussed whether the pursuit should end, but slowed down upon realizing the driver was moving “dangerously fast with no intention of stopping.”
The violator collided with a vehicle head-on, resulting in the deaths of both the driver and a third-party. Officers did not witness the crash, but came upon it within moments.
The third party’s estate sued the agency for negligence.
The Court held that the legal cause required in any negligence action was not met because officers were not involved in the crash. Further, the Court held that the officers’ decision to pursue, and then to stop pursuing, was discretionary rather than ministerial (a function performed without the use of judgement). The officers were thereby entitled to official immunity.
A decision as to whether a set of facts involves discretionary or ministerial actions is a fact-specific one. In this case, looking at the agency’s policy, the violator was clearly engaged in actions that were criminal and dangerous, and fled from a traffic stop before any pursuit began.
The Court further discounted arguments that the officers did not meet policy in their communications with dispatch, and in the use of an unmarked car in the lead. (In the latter, the Court noted trying to move a marked car to the lead would have proved even more hazardous, given the road conditions.)
Another example of vehicle operation litigation is Jones v. Lathram, 150 S.W.3d 50 (Ky. 2004), an officer was responding to an emergency call but was not in a high-speed pursuit when they collided directly with another vehicle. In that case, the court held that the officer’s actions were ministerial as the “act of safely driving a police cruiser, even in an emergency, is not an act that typically requires any deliberation or the exercise of judgment.”
Kentucky law enforcement officers are given the right, and with it the responsibility, to respond to emergencies in ways that are prohibited to other drivers. Every such situation is fraught with risk.
Every response, however, demands extra care to ensure the response is appropriate, within the mandates of state law, and that risk is mitigated to the extent possible for officers and the public.