Did you know you could be fined Rs600 for blocking an ambulance’s path in Sindh?
Giving way to an ambulance is not just a humane act; it is also legally binding. Similarly, you’d face the same penalty if you don’t maintain a safe distance from an ambulance or any emergency vehicle on the road.
This wasn’t always the case though.
“We introduced fines and added an element of strict liability to the Motor Vehicles Ordinance of 1965,” said Sana Jafri, a lawyer and faculty member at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology’s Karachi campus. She worked on the changes to the provincial motor act, which were then passed in an amended act in 2018.
Jafri was speaking at an event, Saving Lives: Legislative Changes for Giving Way to Ambulances, organised jointly by SZABIST, Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre and the Sindh health department on Monday.
She explained how her team had started by changing the definition of an ambulance to “a vehicle designed or adapted primarily for the carriage of the sick, wounded or invalid persons or animals” from “a vehicle designed for the carriage of sick, wounded or invalid persons or animals.”
They also expanded the definition of an emergency vehicle to include law enforcement vehicles, fire brigades and ambulances.
It was made mandatory to make way for an emergency vehicle by slowing down or moving to the side and whosoever followed this would not be penalised if they broke any traffic rules while doing so.
Ambulance drivers would not face any charges if they were speeding beyond the limit of 80kms per hour while responding to an emergency. They would also not be held accountable if they were using a mobile phone while driving, given that they were trying to get in touch with emergency services.
Law enforcement officials, however, say this isn’t being implemented the way it should be.
The traffic problem means that ambulances are frequently stuck in traffic jams, jeopardising the lives of patients, said SSP Masroor Alam Kolachi of the National Highways and Motorways Police.
Indifferent drivers and an absence of exclusive lanes for ambulances further compounds the difficulties, he added.
Facilities already available are not being utilised to make the passage of an ambulance safe, said Malir Traffic SP Naseem Ara.
“We have an FM 88.6 service where we give traffic updates every eight to 10 minutes. The emergency services can be connected to our FM service so we can give updates on the route,” she suggested.
There were also many ways to improve the existing laws and create awareness among the public which could ease the plight of both patients and ambulance staff.
“People who go to get their driving licenses should be informed about giving way to ambulances,” said Sindh Minister for Health and Population Welfare Dr Azra Pechuho.
She informed the participants that life skills-based education was already a part of the school curriculum, but it could be expanded to include awareness of the new legislation. Not just students and young drivers, but legislators too needed to be sensitised, Dr Pechuho remarked.
JPMC Executive Director Dr Seemin Jamali agreed with this point. She added that execution of the law was the main problem.
She recommended sensitising traffic and motorway police about the importance of the legislation. Dr Jamali also pointed out that in order to save lives, ambulance teams needed to be properly trained themselves.
“Every ambulance should have an EMT technician trained in the proper protocols,” she said. “Jinnah has been training staff for a long time and we would be willing to facilitate anyone interested.”
Dr Jamali also stressed the need for a unified rescue number like 1122 for all of Sindh and the standardisation of emergency services across the province.
Earlier, SSP Kolachi had warned that the new definition of ambulances and emergency vehicles could lead to mushrooming of private vehicles with non-standardised rates. He said a thorough audit of all service providers and strict criteria for registration was necessary to prevent unscrupulous organisations from taking advantage of the new laws.
He also objected to the provision of allowing ambulance drivers to use mobile phones while driving on safety grounds, to which the health minister suggested the use of mobile phones using a hands-free device as an alternative.
How did this amendment Act come to be?
“Apart from on national highways, there was no obligation on the citizens earlier to give way to ambulances,” revealed Mirwais Khan, the head of the Healthcare in Danger Initiative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, while speaking about the research in 2011 that sparked the amendments.
This led to fatal delays in services and resulted in increased mortality and morbidity of patients, which in turn aggravated violence against emergency ward staff and ambulance personnel.
“In Karachi, 66% of healthcare providers had experienced violence over the year, while 51% had in Peshawar,” he said.
Nationwide surveys showed that as many as 49% of healthcare workers had experienced violence in some form for a period of just six months. The Red Cross organisation’s studies also revealed how subsequent awareness campaigns brought an improvement in these statistics.