Dealing with and correctly reacting to emergency services and their vehicles even as an experienced driver can be stressful. This is particularly the case for new or learner drivers who under pressure, may not react appropriately.
Correctly dealing with emergency vehicles begins with acknowledging the vehicle, assessing your immediate situation, assessing the situation of the emergency vehicle and taking action.
Acknowledging the Vehicle
Acknowledging an emergency vehicle can often be harder than it might appear. Emergency vehicles will often use sirens to provide an audible signal of their presence. The siren is often the initial signal that makes you aware of them. As sounds reverberate, especially off buildings in urban areas, it can be difficult to know where the siren is coming from – whether in front, behind or from the sides.
If you are listening to music, turn music off or down, look around and check mirrors. If you have passengers, ask them to help you locate the emergency vehicle by looking for a flashing light.
Emergency Vehicle Light Colours
By far the most common emergency flashing light you’ll encounter will be blue, typically associated with the police, ambulance and fire emergency services. You may on occasion see a green flashing light which is a doctor responding to an emergency call-out. Other frequent lights used are amber which are none-emergency and signify a hazard. For further details on the types of vehicles and services using various coloured flashing lights, see:
Assessing the Situation
If you are in the path of a vehicle on an emergency with blue lights, you’ll need to assess your situation and that of the emergency vehicle by the time it reaches you.
Think the situation through and don’t panic. Some drivers go running red lights and hastily mounting pavements in desperation to make a clear path for the emergency vehicle.
The emergency vehicle could indeed save a life, so it’s important to take swift action not to hold it up, but it’s equally important that you do not endanger yourself or others around you. You may also consider that simply moving into a bus lane or running a red light to move out the way may see you issued with a penalty notice, that ultimately could see you in court.
So, remain calm and think, if I stop here can the emergency vehicle pass easily? If not, can I move out of the way legally and will my actions endanger others? Or shall I continue to drive, keeping to the speed limit where a safe stopping area is up ahead?
Stopping in hazardous places
Also assess the course of the emergency vehicle. Avoid if possible pulling over on or near to a hill, bend or narrow section of the road. This could prove hazardous for the passing emergency vehicle and for oncoming vehicles.
Sometimes there’s no need to stop at all. If for example you are on a level straight road, there is a emergency vehicle approaching from behind. If there are no oncoming vehicles, simply apply your left indicator and slow down to allow the emergency vehicle to pass. Stopping unnecessarily particularly on high speed roads can be hazardous if other vehicles behind have not yet noticed the emergency vehicle.
So you have assessed the situation and found a safe, legal area to stop to allow passage for the emergency vehicle. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work out this way. Sometimes, especially in busy urban areas, there’s just nowhere to go. If you are holding up an emergency vehicle and they have no other options, you can consider mounting the kerb / pavement, but you must provide yourself enough time to establish it is clear of pedestrians and that you do not damage your car in doing so.
Consider such actions as a last resort however. Emergency vehicles have exemptions to the law and can use bus lanes and run red lights, even whilst on the wrong side of the road if necessary.
If you are approaching a roundabout, stop and allow the emergency vehicle to pass before you enter the roundabout.
If you are exiting a minor road to enter a major road wait if you hear an approaching siren. Exiting could prove hazardous as you may impede the progress of the emergency vehicle and you could misjudge their speed as they could be moving in excess of the speed limit. Remember also that there maybe more than one emergency vehicle, so ensure it is safe to exit the junction once the emergency vehicle has passed.
Motorways and dual carriageways
Keep to the nearside left-side-lane, or move to the nearside lane by signalling your intention to merge with other traffic. Avoid using the hard shoulder as emergency services can use this lane if necessary.
Solid white lines
Either continuous double solid white lines in the centre of the road or where the solid white line is your side of the road prohibits you from crossing them except under certain circumstances. See double white lines for further information. Under these conditions, the emergency vehicle cannot overtake. If you can locate a safe place to pull over to allow the emergency vehicle to pass then do so, otherwise continue, keeping within the speed limit until the emergency vehicle can safely pass. It’s likely under these conditions that the emergency vehicle will remain behind you and turn off their sirens.