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Road rules around emergency vehicles – how to react without causing a scene

Each Australian state and territory has variation when it comes to its road rules and it’s important to have a good understanding of the differences between them when travelling interstate in order to stay safe. For instance, one such difference is what to do when you hear or see emergency vehicles while you’re out on the roads. An emergency vehicle is a police, fire or ambulance vehicle, which often has to move at high speeds in the event of an emergency, generally with lights flashing and/or sirens sounding.

How can you ensure that you do the right thing when you see flashing lights and hear those sirens? What happens if you are involved in an accident while trying to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle? Make sure you know the laws and guidelines so you can keep yourself and fellow road users safe.

The 40km/h rule around emergency vehicles

In New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania, road users are required to safely slow down to 40km/h when approaching or passing emergency vehicles that are stationary or moving slowly, and have their lights flashing and/or an alarm sounding. New South Wales has an exception to this rule: on roads that have a speed limit of 90km/h or more, drivers are required to slow down safely to a speed that is “reasonable for the circumstances”. In South Australia, they take the law even further, and drivers passing stationary police and other emergency vehicles must slow to 25km/h or less.

It is your responsibility as a driver to be aware of the laws in each state, as you will wear a fine in whatever state you are driving in if you break their traffic laws.

What to do around emergency vehicles

If one (or more) emergency vehicle is coming towards you and is sounding an alarm or showing flashing red or blue lights, you must move out its path as soon as you can do so safely. Other steps you should take include:

  1. Be aware of your surroundings and listen to what is going on around you.
  2. Slow down to the required speed in the state in which you are driving.
  3. Move as far left on the road as you can to give the emergency vehicle a clear run down the right side of the road. If you can’t move left safely, stay where you are and let the emergency vehicle overtake you.
  4. If you are already in the left lane, ensure you allow other road users to safely move into your lane if it is safe to do so.
  5. Be sure to indicate and signal your intentions to all road users, especially the emergency vehicles.

Most importantly, when giving way to an emergency vehicle DO NOT break the law (e.g. speeding to get out of their way). However, in some states you are permitted to go through red lights if it is safe to do so.

What you shouldn’t do?

  • Do not move your vehicle suddenly and without thinking
  • Don’t slam on your brakes or stop suddenly if you hear or see an emergency vehicle approaching
  • Do not drive into the path of the emergency vehicle
  • Don’t speed up to follow the emergency vehicle to get a clear run through the traffic
  • If emergency vehicles are pulled over on the side of the road, don’t slow down too much to take a look at what is happening or worst still, don’t stop to see what is happening
  • Don’t drive too closely to stationary emergency vehicles which may be positioned close to the road, and make sure you are cautious of emergency personnel who could be in and around their vehicles
  • Don’t obstruct the traffic; you don’t want to be the cause of another incident on the road
  • Don’t play loud music that inhibits your ability to hear what is going on around you. This also includes using earphones in both ears
  • Lastly, never ignore a flashing light or siren.

Knowing the road rules around emergency vehicles will help you to act calmly and safely as you get your vehicle safely out of the way. Thinking before you act could help you to save a stranger’s life.

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: December 4, 2019.

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