Wailing sirens, or the sight of blue flashing lights, can bring dread to even the most composed driver.
Most motorists know they need to move over for the emergency services, but not everyone knows the best way how. Making the wrong choice could delay those responding to an accident, and land yourself in trouble.
Read on for our top tips on how to safely and legally give way to the emergency services while driving.
What can the emergency services do when using blue lights?
Emergency services drivers are exempt from various road traffic laws when using blue lights and sirens. Section 87 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 underpins these exemptions, allowing police, fire brigade, and ambulance vehicles to disobey the speed limit in an emergency.
Exemptions also allow the emergency services to pass on the wrong side of a ‘keep left’ sign, or treat a red traffic light as a ‘give way’ sign.
Each individual emergency services driver has to justify their use of exemptions in the given circumstances. Using them unnecessarily, or taking disproportionate risks, could result in prosecution for driving offences.
What should I do when I hear a siren or see blue lights?
The most important message is not to panic and simply slam on your brakes.
Stopping in the middle of the road can make it harder for an emergency services vehicle to pass you, or potentially cause an accident if there are other vehicles following you.
Check which way the emergency services are likely to be going, then calmly slow down and pull over to let them by.
If you’re at a roundabout or busy junction when you hear sirens, it is best to wait and see what direction an emergency services vehicle is coming from before moving off.
What if there is nowhere safe to move over?
Although you might want to let a vehicle on blue lights pass as soon as possible, not everywhere is a safe place to slow down and pull to one side.
Do not pull over on the entry to a sharp bend or at the brow of a hill. Limited vision here could make it dangerous for an emergency services vehicle to pass you. Instead, keep going until the visibility improves, then move over.
You should also avoid taking to the kerb and stopping in bus lanes where possible. Be aware of traffic islands, and avoid blocking the road by stopping near them.
What if there is a solid white line on the road?
Solid white lines on roads are used to show where overtaking may be dangerous, typically due to limited visibility. These risks still apply to the emergency services responding to an incident.
Should an emergency services vehicle end up behind you on a section of road with solid white lines, they are likely to turn off the lights and sirens. They will keep them off until the solid lines end, and are able to overtake safely.
You should keep driving safely, obeying the speed limit, until the solid white line ends. You can then look to slow down and allow the emergency services past.
Can I go through a red traffic light?
Emergency services vehicles can pass through a red traffic light, but that exemption does not automatically extend to other road users getting out of their way. Rule 219 of the Highway Code says that drivers should comply ‘with all traffic signs’ when letting emergency services vehicles pass.
If you are at a junction with a red light, stay where you are and allow the emergency services to find a route through. Should the traffic be busy, they may switch off their lights and sirens until the traffic lights change.
What should I do if I see blue lights on a motorway?
As with driving on a normal road, do not immediately brake to a stop should you see blue lights behind you on a motorway. Instead, look to move to the left when safe to do so, while obeying any instructions on overhead gantry signs.
Where traffic has come to a halt, the hard shoulder will be used by the emergency services to make progress. This makes it even more important to keep the hard shoulder free.
Where there is no hard shoulder, the emergency services vehicles may pass between lanes to try and reach the scene of an incident ahead. Look to help create a channel for emergency services vehicles to use, and be aware of multiple vehicles.
How much room should I give emergency vehicles?
It may sound obvious, but modern fire engines and ambulances are substantially larger than the average car.
Try to take this into account when moving out of the way, so as not to obstruct the emergency services unnecessarily. It can also avoid your car being damaged, should a 12-tonne fire engine need to get through in a hurry.
Will there be just one vehicle?
Although it is tempting to move off after letting one emergency vehicle through, take time to check that a second car, ambulance or fire engine is not following behind.
Major incidents could see a number of vehicles heading to the same location, and you do not want to inadvertently block them by pulling into their path.