Bill forces ambulance drivers to be certified

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Kevin Murphy
Friday, April 9, 2010
— Testifying on the fifth anniversary of his wife’s death, Gregg Theune told a Senate committee Thursday that his wife might be alive today if the ambulance driver had been properly trained.

“Cindy’s car was struck by the ambulance as she was going through on a green light. Despite being warned three times by (a coworker) that the light was red, the driver actually sped up,” said Theune, UW-Whitewater director of media development.

Wisconsin statutes exempt ambulance drivers from speed limits and traffic signals but do not require drivers to complete any specialized training.

Theune finds that unsettling. He said he can’t drive a UW-Whitewater van without being certified.

“There are significant risks to transporting patients at high speeds. It just makes sense to ensure that drivers know how to operate so they are safe themselves and to others on the road,” he said.

The driver of the private ambulance involved in the fatal Theune crash had received only one day specialized training without a road test, Theune said.

Ironically, Cindy Theune had worked with emergency medical technicians throughout her 25 years as a nurse, Theune said.

Ambulance drivers in Wisconsin typically complete an emergency vehicle driving class that uses federal standards but might not include a road course, according to legislative documents.

On average, one traffic fatality involving emergency vehicles occurs weekly in the U.S., State Rep. Kim Hixson, D-Whitewater said, quoting National Safety Council statistics.

“At a basic level, this bill would also allow driver schools and technical colleges to be certified … to offer the driving safety course to drivers, thus making the training more readily available,” said Hixson, chief sponsor of the ambulance training bill.

The Wisconsin EMS Association opposes the legislation, saying training is costly and not warranted because Wisconsin has few accidents.

“There are 500,000 ambulance runs a year in Wisconsin. There’s 12 crashes a year on average and only two fatalities in the past several years,” said Forbes McIntosh, lobbyist for the association.

Eighty percent of EMTs are volunteers, and they’re already difficult to recruit because of the hours of required training, McIntosh said.

As an alternative, he suggested the installation of devices that allow emergency vehicle drivers to control traffic signals, which costs about $1,700 per intersection.

“That’s not cheap, but it’s a remedy,” he said.

Theune later said the devices were installed in Waukesha County at Highway 18 and County TT, the site of his wife’s fatal crash.

State Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, who worked with Theune in a previous legislative session, said training alone wouldn’t stop accidents because human error can always be a factor.

“You can train everybody, but it still won’t end the accidents,” he said.

The committee took no action on the bill Thursday, but Hixson and Theune remained optimistic that it would pass the Legislature this year.

Last updated: 1:38 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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