The Slow Ride

As I was discharging the patient to rehab, she described the municipal EMS crew that had initially brought her from home with a fractured hip. “It took 20 minutes to get here,” she said, “and my house is only a mile down the road.”

Annoyed? Hardly. She couldn’t have been happier.

It’s well and good to be a really great driver. (In fact, if you ask me, it’s just about an essential skill.) Good drivers can push the efficiency of the “smooth vs. fast” curve, and this is important, because we want it both ways. But every now and then, you get a patient who simply needs to be transported at the distant, snowy left side of that balance. A patient who almost can’t be moved at all.

These are the patients with unfixated hip fractures. Or grim decubitus ulcers. Perhaps terrible, chronic back pain. Anybody who’s doing okay at rest, but experiences agony upon uncontrolled movement. Some of these are emergency patients, some are routine transfers, and a few of the latter may even be repeat customers while their problems gradually heal (or never do). Whoever they are, they’re patients you wish you could transport by either teleporter or hovercraft.

You touch them, and they scream. You move them, and they scream. You look at them vigorously, and they open their mouth to get ready to scream.

I can’t help you with extrication or getting them onto the stretcher; that’s your problem (or at least another post). But once you hit the road, there’s a solution. All it takes is patience. Here’s the formula:

  1. Move to the rightmost lane.
  2. Throw on your 4-way hazards.
  3. Drive about 5 MPH.
  4. Avoid every single bump.

Please understand what I’m saying here. I already know that you drive pretty well; you try to give your partner a great ride, and that usually means driving a little slower than you would in your personal vehicle. But for these patients, that’s still too rough. So you slow it down more, so you can pick a better path between cracks and potholes, and when you do hit a bump its effects are less dramatic. And that’s still too rough. So you slow, slow, slow it down. As slow as you need in order to completely negate the bumps, bounces, and turns. Your actual speed will depend on the quality of the road; on beautifully smooth, brand new city roads, you may be able to eke out 10, even 20 MPH. On particularly bad roads, with irregularities that look like speedbumps — or come to think of it, when you’re traversing actual speedbumps — you may literally be crawling along at about 1 MPH.

In most cases, you will probably find yourself driving with the brake pedal rather than the gas pedal. In other words, you’ll be lucky if your foot ever touches the accelerator; most of the time, you’ll “accelerate” by easing off the brake a bit more, and decelerate by pushing it harder. (Remember to ease in and out; in smooth driving, everything happens slowly!)

Obviously, this is only appropriate when you’re in no particular hurry. Critical patients need to move a little faster. Furthermore, your ability to execute this maneuver is somewhat dependent on how far you’re actually driving; the shorter the trip, the better, because a long trip taken at 1 MPH will end up lasting all week. The prototypical transport begging for the slow ride is the stable hip fracture from the nursing home, heading to the ED across town — not too far, but with nasty urban roads the whole way.

Other tips:

  • Other drivers will probably not be thrilled at this behavior. As long as there are multiple lanes, stay to the right, and they can go around. If you’re stuck on a one-lane road for a while, periodically try to pull aside and let vehicles pass.
  • Although it may seem smart to throw on your emergency lights, most drivers expect an ambulance running hot to be moving faster than traffic, not slower, so it generally causes more confusion than it’s worth.
  • At this speed, you have some real options for maneuvering. Mentally trace the double track that your wheels will describe on the ground ahead (remembering that your rear wheels may be slightly fatter, if you have “dualies” back there), and choose a route that places that path between the worst bumps. You can go left, you can go right, or you can straddle them.
  • When crossing a wide, straight barrier, such as a speed bump, railroad track, or the threshold of a ramp, try to “square up” first, striking it perpendicularly so you’ll make contact with left and right tires simultaneously. The back-and-forth rocking created by hitting it diagonally, resulting in asymmetrically bouncing across 1-2-3-4 wheels, is miserable no matter how small the actual bump.
  • Remember that the pain level of many unstable musculoskeletal injuries can be improved by smart, snug splinting. If you have time to drive like this, you probably have time to splint well — which may allow you to drive a little faster!
  • Although this may be obvious: paramedics, remember that you carry analgesics for a reason; Basics, remember that paramedics are available.

Pulling this off takes a little confidence, and a healthy dose of not giving a damn. And there will occasionally be roads or driving conditions that make it actually unsafe. But short of that, no matter how many stares you get, it’s a perfectly sensible maneuver, and one of the very best things you can do for these patients.

Finally, we offer a recommended soundtrack.


  1. [redacted] says

    Nice quidelines, in some eastern european countries it wouldn’t be possible to follow due to condition of roads đŸ™‚

  2. [redacted] says

    It never dawned on me that ambulances may need to drive slow in some instances due to the nature of someone’s injuries. I always assumed that any ambulance with their lights one would want to go as fast as humanly possible. Next time I see one driving slow I’ll know the reasoning thanks to you!

Speak Your Mind