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Congested roadways increase risks for emergency responders

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It's estimated that every year in the United States almost 16,000 wrecks take place involving emergency responders. Here in the Austin area with more people on the roads, the roadway risk for fire fighters and ambulance crews has increased.

In a FOX 7 special 7 On Your Side report Rudy Koski shows us what it’s like to make an emergency run and how you can help make it safer for everyone.

Whether it’s a fire or a wreck, with lives on the line seconds count. But for emergency responders from San Marcos to Round Rock, getting to a scene or to a hospital like an ambulance crew on I-35 - the drive can be like maneuvering through an obstacle course.

"You are definitely doing a slalom course, you have to anticipate what the other drivers are doing," said Ryan Hamilton.

Fire fighters Bobby Dallimore and Ryan Hamilton say it wasn't that long ago when backups were limited to the morning and afternoon rush hours.

"It’s increasingly getting worse. Gridlock is happening a little bit more,” said Dallimore.

The problem has grown as more people move to Central Texas.

"It used to be a vast difference when school was in or out, now traffic is bad year around," said Battalion Chief Jeff Clark.

How bad? Consider this. In 2000, less than a million vehicles were registered with the state in Hays, Travis and Williamson Counties. In five short years, the number increased to 1.1 million. By 2010, the DMV count jumped to 1.4 million. Currently, there are a million and a half vehicles in Austin’s top three metro counties.

Driving through that knowing someone needs help can be frustrating and dangerous.

"Time does matter, but like the chief said, we don’t want to cause another accident; we have to proceed safely,” said Ambulance Driver Ryan Hawkins.

In 2003, an ambulance driver from Bonham was killed when a car crossed the center line. And in 1999, a Texas City fire Capitan died after a car slammed into the side of his truck.

FOX 7 rode with local responders on what would be a white-knuckle experience for any other driver.

"Every once in a while you have that person who panics at the last minute and tries to switch lanes,” said Hamilton.

The Austin Fire Department provided video of a truck cutting off a Fire Engine. In San Marcos, indecision by several drivers slowed down an emergency run we went on.

"Yeah, you'll get a lot of swerving; don’t know which direction to go,” said Dallimore.

And the challenge is not just getting around other drivers. Trains can also really clog up the road.

"So if we can just get everybody to just move one direction that would solve a lot of the problem,” said Dallimore.

That direction is to the right. The rules of the road are very simple. Here are a few scenarios"

You're on a multi-lane highway or interstate. What do you do? Move to the right.

How about a narrow two lane road? Again, its move to the right.

Here's a tough one. You're stuck at a red light and no one's moving. Fire officials say, if you can't get to the right, its ok to stay put.

"Training is critical but difficult to do. To get experience behind the wheel without the risk - a new virtual world has been created for responders."

About two years ago, a driving simulator was purchased with a federal grant by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. It looks like a carnival ride and can be hauled to fire department across the state.

"It’s more than a video game, because you can feel it while you are sitting in the driver’s seat, whenever they change the weather conditions your brakes and steering act differently as well,” said Hawkins.

What’s learned in the simulator is already paying off on the roads.

"Shortly after I did a simulator I did a call and we had a car that pulled in front of us the same way, which we just did that I the simulator, it helped out,” said Hamilton.

But even with all the new technology responders still need you to move over. And if you don’t, traffic tickets range from $200 to more than $300.

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