Why Do Some People Pull Over For Ambulances And Other's Don't?

Considering motivation in the context of when exploring reasons people may have regarding pulling over for ambulances.

Why Do Some People Pull Over For Ambulances And Other's Don't?
Drivers who pulled over to the side of a highway and allowed two ambulances to pass through have been praised after the stunt was caught on camera (Source- Daily Mirror)

In 2021, a Queensland Australia man went viral for a reaction that I ABSOLUTELY LOVE. Caution though, the language is a little explicit.

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You can find the full article here.

Now, my "American" is probably showing, because I have no expectations that anyone ever pulls over when we're responding. The zigzags, sudden braking, tailgaters, and long stops while giving people the "angry siren/horn" I've had to do over the years is unquantifiable.

I'm also not naive enough to think that all calls are like this for those in Queensland. It may even be the exception, not the rule. I'm using this concept, however, to introduce one of the inspirations for this newsletter/blog. Motivation.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

One of my favorite dictionary definitions of the word "motivate" relates to the desire to move something forward, that is, to impel. [1] The example of people pulling over for ambulances works well with this definition. A driver not motivated to do so would simply go along with their day, and possibly even use the break in traffic to make up some time. One that is motivated to do so will pull over, and maybe even ecstatically post a TikTok when others do the same.

In 1985, two University of Rochester professors Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci began to look at motivation and produced one of the more influential theories of motivation, the Self-Determination Theory [2]

Their reflection looked at how motivation isn't just a singular thing- it can vary in intensity (level) or type (orientation)

As an example, a student can be highly motivated to do homework out of curiosity and interest or, alternatively, because he or she wants to procure the approval of a teacher or parent. A student could be motivated to learn a new set of skills because he or she understands their potential utility or value or because learning the skills will yield a good grade and the privileges a good grade affords. In these examples the amount of motiva- tion does not necessarily vary, but the nature and focus of the motivation being evidenced certainly does. [3]

Intrinsic motivation is simply doing something because of an internal satisfaction. Extrinsic motivation is thought of as having some outcome outside the individual. The challenge Ryan and Deci took on, however, is that motivation from intrinsic interest alone is often quite limited. Generally, there is some outside factor that causes us to behave a certain way. Perhaps people are pulling over for fear of punishment from authorities. Perhaps they are pulling over because their family member suffered a crash one time and was saved due to speedy help.

Ryan and Deci's research indicated that performance was generally better and had fewer negative outcomes when something was performed for intrinsic reasons versus extrinsic. [4] Thus, it became important to find ways to foster integration and identification when dealing extrinsically in order to build the autonomy that share the positives of being intrinsic

Ryan/Deci's figure from Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, Contemporary Educational Psychology, Volume 25, Issue 1, 2000, Page 61
[5]

Self-Determination Theory (SDT)

What I'll be going back to over and over again, I'm sure, is the result of their exploration of motivation. I want to share just the introduction from the center Ryan and Deci later founded to explore motivation further.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) represents a broad framework for the study of human motivation and personality. SDT articulates a meta-theory for framing motivational studies, a formal theory that defines intrinsic and varied extrinsic sources of motivation, and a description of the respective roles of intrinsic and types of extrinsic motivation in cognitive and social development and in individual differences. Perhaps more importantly, SDT propositions also focus on how social and cultural factors facilitate or undermine people’s sense of volition and initiative, in addition to their well-being and the quality of their performance. Conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity. In addition, SDT proposes that the degree to which any of these three psychological needs is unsupported or thwarted within a social context will have a robust detrimental impact on wellness in that setting.[6]

The three bolded items are what make up the crux of SDT. It also has broad applications for those of us trying to make our communities safer through civic engagement.

  • Autonomy- Inwardly grasping the meaning or worth of an action, so that it's not just their unconsciously but part of an active thought process
  • Competence- Having the skills to likely succeed at the action
  • Relatedness- The sense of belonging and connectedness to the person/group/culture proposing a goal [7]

People are more likely to pull over for an ambulance screaming down the side of the road if they understand why they need to do it, they have the ability to do it safely and effectively, and they feel a sense of solidarity with either their fellow drivers "building Noah's ark" or with the person in need of those units.

I'm excited the most to explore these three items not only in the context of sudden cardiac arrest, but through other public safety lenses as well. I believe we do some things well, but with minor tweaks we can do even better. Because of how important SDT is to the Civic Resuscitation Project, I've given this topic its own tag, which you can find at the bottom of the webpage in order to view all these posts as a group. If we want more lives saved, we need to be our best at motivating others to help us do so.


  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/motivating ↩︎

  2. Richard M. Ryan, Edward L. Deci, Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, Contemporary Educational Psychology, Volume 25, Issue 1, 2000,Pages 54-67, ISSN 0361-476X,https://doi.org/10.1006/ceps.1999.1020.
    (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0361476X99910202) ↩︎

  3. ibid. ↩︎

  4. ibid. ↩︎

  5. Ryan/Deci's figure from Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, Contemporary Educational Psychology, Volume 25, Issue 1, 2000, Page 61 ↩︎

  6. https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/theory/ ↩︎

  7. Ryan and Deci, Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions ↩︎