Can Ambulance Drivers Change Traffic Lights?

If you ever sat in traffic and heard the sounds of an ambulance siren behind you then you’ve either had to move your car to make way for the ambulance, or the traffic light has miraculously changed. Many people most likely wonder how is it that an ambulance truck can make its way through traffic to make it to an emergency. The truth is that while most of the time ambulances can make it through traffic through the right of the way another truth is that technology plays into this scenario as well.

Ambulance drivers can change traffic lights through traffic signal preemption, a system that allows traffic lights to change in the event of an emergency. This process allows for the ambulance to move along safely while getting to the scene faster.

As you can see it’s not a coincidence, but more the result of technology hard at work. So, if you’re curious about how this phenomenon works, or maybe you want to become an ambulance driver and want to know how the process works then keep on reading!

Yes, It’s Possible

To answer your question right off the bat, the ambulance can change traffic lights through technology. However not every ambulance driver can do this as this piece of technology will vary by city or ambulance company. If you are in a city that has a lot of traffic or if your city sees a lot of medical emergencies daily.

While most drivers are not familiar with this and believe that change of light is a coincidence, the truth is that it is not a coincidence at all. The driver will not be able to physically change the light themselves, but the technology that they have on them will very much make this possible.

Traffic Preemption

By now you’ve probably read the words traffic preemption multiple times, and you’re still probably wondering what in the world it is. Traffic preemption is a technology that is used on both emergency vehicles and traffic lights, that will allow emergency vehicles the right of way.

Can Ambulance Drivers Change Traffic Lights?

So how does it work? For traffic preemption to be effective the ambulance truck and the traffic lights will both need to have systems in place for the lights to change, one simply cannot work without the other. When the traffic light signals detect the sirens and the device in the ambulance truck the lights will automatically change to green so that the ambulance truck can cross safely. Not only will this allow the ambulance to arrive at the scene safely, but it will also keep pedestrians and incoming traffic to cross safely as well.

It is important to site that ambulance drivers are not responsible for buying this form of technology, and in fact, it is the company that is responsible for making sure that these devices are in the truck. However, some ambulance trucks are funded by the city especially in large cities like New York City, therefore if the city provides a sufficient budget then the city will have these devices installed.

Common Devices

When it comes to traffic preemption, not all devices are the same, however, while the devices are tasked with doing the same thing, some devices work better than others. Here are just a few of the most common devices that ambulance drivers will use to change traffic lights.

Radio Signal

In some cases, the ambulance will use a radio signal to communicate the traffic light change. While it is not as common or technologically advanced as other devices the radio signal method is by far one of the most effective because it is not obstructed by large visuals and is not impacted by bad weather.


A great thing about an ambulance siren is that you can hear it from a mile away, and the sound is distinct from any other sound that traffic may bring. This form of device works when the traffic light emitter picks up the sound of the siren, this is caused by the unique sound patterns. If your ambulance company has a fairly low budget, then this is a great system to use and it is fairly inexpensive. Out of all the devices that ambulance drivers use this is by far the most common.

Line of Sight

This is another common form of traffic preemption, and it is done through the siren’s lighting system. As the traffic light emitter picks up the light patterns of the siren, then it will cause the traffic light to change. This is another great device as siren light patterns are not put on non-authorized vehicles which makes it difficult for other vehicles to mimic.

These are just a few common devices that ambulance drivers can use to safely get to a patient. The options given will vary in terms of functionality, pricing, and dependability however they are all great options and should be considered when investing in your company’s ambulance trucks.

Welcome to Opticom

As mentioned in the previous section the lighting system is one of the most common ways for the ambulance driver to change traffic lights.

Opticom is one of the most dependable companies that install lighting systems that help change traffic lights. Here’s how it works.

Can Ambulance Drivers Change Traffic Lights?

The Opticom Infrared System uses coded infrared signals on your ambulance truck which then sends that signal to the intersection traffic controller which provides the ambulance driver with the right of way.

While a price is not given on their website, they can provide you with a free quote, as well as suggestions for what best suits the ambulance company’s needs.

Benefits of Traffic Preemption

While it may seem as simple as being able to skip a red light or avoid heavy traffic, this form of traffic change comes with benefits, not only for the driver but the patient too. Here are just some of the common benefits of traffic preemption.

  • Safe driving is guaranteed. The biggest benefit of traffic preemption is the ambulance drivers’ right of way. By using this system for driving the driver will avoid any possible altercation at an intersection, which is the last thing that any driver needs especially when they are trying to get to a patient.
  • Get to your patient in record time. Another great thing about traffic preemption is the ability for the driver to get to the patient much sooner than expected. Drivers who use this type of system are likely to cut their response type by 20%, which can sometimes be crucial when transporting a patient.
  • Better traffic validation. In some cases, traffic controllers need to validate traffic logs which is important when determining which vehicle has the right of way. Ambulance drivers will automatically be considered as authorized vehicles when traffic validation is taking place.

As you can see there are some great benefits for ambulance drivers that wish to use this form of technology. These benefits will protect both you as an ambulance driver and your patient.
Legal Ramifications

So, are there any legal ramifications? The truth is that there is a lot of leeways when it comes to authorized vehicles. In this case, if an ambulance has the right of way and has their lights turned on and is responding to an emergency then they have every right to either speed or run a red light.

Although with the use of traffic preemption there is no need to worry about the legal ramifications that come with traffic laws when it comes to driving an ambulance truck.

Wondering how ambulance drivers know where to go? Check our article HERE!

Final Thoughts

So just to clarify, yes ambulance drivers can change traffic lights in an instant, however, it takes a good investment and knowledge of this form of technology. While it is a great benefit to be able to change a traffic light, it is just as important to know that you cannot take advantage of the tools that you have access to.

Q&A Section

How much do these devices cost?

It all depends! The truth is that there is no set price for these devices, however, honestly speaking your company will need to prepare to invest to buy this sort of device. In the end, it’s very much worth it.

Can I get a ticket or get into trouble if I use this device?

No, ambulance trucks are considered to be authorized emergency vehicles, and in the event of an emergency, an ambulance will not be cited due to a traffic violation. However, you must remember this is used for emergency use only.

Is this device hard to use?

Not! The sounds of the sirens or the light patterns will do all the work for you once the sirens are turned on, all you need to do is wait for the light to change once the traffic light picks up the signal.

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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.