Emergency vehicles, sirens wailing, speed through Orange County streets each day in response to calls for help or in pursuit of suspected lawbreakers. Thanks to the judgment and skill of emergency personnel, the attention and caution of motorists--and good luck--most of those emergency runs end without mishap.
But sometimes--when judgment fails, attention is relaxed or luck runs out--an emergency call ends tragically, as one did Christmas Day when two young women were killed at a Westminster intersection. Their auto was struck broadside by a police car speeding to the aid of another officer who had radioed for help.
When that kind of accident occurs, there are always the haunting questions: What went wrong? Could disaster have been avoided? What can be done to reduce the chance that it will happen again?
The circumstances of the Westminster accident are under investigation. There is no pattern or connection, but last month five people were killed in Orange County in three crashes involving police cars pursuing suspects or responding to emergency calls. And three police officers were killed in Los Angeles when their cars collided on an emergency call.
The law and the strict policies outlined by all departments regarding pursuits and emergency responses are clear. Motorists must yield the right of way, and emergency vehicles, although exempt from the rules of the road when their sirens and red lights are on, must still be operated without endangering public safety.
At best the situation is perilous for everyone on the road. In responding to calls for help, emergency personnel are eager to get there in a hurry. But the most important thing is to get there safely. According to some witnesses, the police unit was traveling about 75 m.p.h. Although the general policy for such calls does not set speed limits at intersections, caution is stressed. The tragic deaths of Jessica Warren, 19, and Dawn Hammond, 20, on Christmas Day are a painful reminder of the constant need for such caution.