Emergency Vehicles and You – Are you Blue Light Aware?

Emergency workers provide an essential service to our communities. It is important that we all have a clear understanding of how to react when presented with an emergency vehicle on blue lights to ensure that they can go about their business unobstructed.

How often when you are driving have you had the sudden appearance of an emergency vehicle behind you? With their lights flashing, sirens blaring, bellowing horns all indicating for you to move out of the way….

So what’s your first reaction? Do you panic and try to get out of the way as quickly as possible to let them pass, not really thinking about anything other than letting them through? Or… do you stay where you are and hope others will move? Or stop suddenly thinking they can get by you? Not knowing the rules around emergency vehicles can hinder them doing their job and, worst case scenario, endanger you and other road users.

So, what should you do?

The Influencing Travel Behaviour Team thought it would be best if we spoke to someone who actually drove on blue lights to tell us about their experiences of getting around, and how motorists can help make their jobs easier by knowing what they should and shouldn’t be doing.  

Martin David from Yorkshire Ambulance Service is a paramedic with 17 years’ experience driving on blue lights. Martin explains how during this time he has come across many situations when driver error or knowledge has led to delays in them getting to a job.

We asked Martin:

When driving on blue lights what do you need motorists to do?

It’s simple really – pull over to the left and stop. If you keep moving it may block us if we are turning left or might narrow any gaps with oncoming hazards such as oncoming traffic, parked vehicles and traffic islands.

If you see us coming on the opposite side of the road please look at our indicators and road position. We could be turning across your path so please stop.

And when moving out of the way move your whole vehicle out of the way not just the front end.

We then asked Martin what problems often occur when the blue lights are on:

We often come across vehicles that continue to pull out of side roads when we are approaching, then suddenly stop. This causes us concern as we don’t know if you have seen us, and we then have to manoeuvre a 4.5 tonne vehicle with a patient on board at speed around you.

Sometimes, motorists deliberately refuse to stop, wanting to get to their turn off/destination, and vehicles overtake other vehicles who have pulled over to give way. They obviously have not checked their mirrors and are not paying full attention to the road.

One of our main concerns is with drivers who are inexperienced at dealing with having to make sudden decisions about what they should do when they see us on blue lights.

Many of the drivers (young and old) panic and slam their brakes on – this isn’t good at all as we often carry very ill or injured people and your sudden stop means we have to break hard too. Many drivers also don’t really pay attention to where they stop, this is all about being a good driver and reading the road.

Stopping on blind bends or brows of hills is not really good road awareness, and it adds to the dangers we face as emergency drivers.”

Traffic lights and blues lights are often a cause for concern for many drivers, this adds to their deliberation about what they should and shouldn’t do. So we asked Martin whether red lights should be obeyed when an emergency vehicle is wanting to get by.

Martin’s answer to this is:

Yes, you must obey red lights at all times, even temporary lights at road works. We see too many drivers who think they are doing the right thing by crossing a red light only to pick up a fine a week later.

One of the main concerns for drivers which causes them uncertainty is that they are keeping you from getting to an emergency when you are stood behind them at lights, what would you like to say to this?

When we approach traffic lights when on blue lights and see no clear path through we will turn off the sirens and just leave the lights on. This allows you to know we are there but that we are waiting patiently for the lights to change.

Is there one piece of advice you can give drivers at traffic lights?

Yes, it’s simple – don’t get so close to the vehicle in front that it stops you from being able to manoeuvre your vehicle safely and legally without crossing the light. By leaving a gap you are giving yourself space to move to the side and allow us through.

What about when the lights go green – what should drivers do?

They should proceed through the lights and then move over as soon as it is safe and clear to do so.

We asked Martin if there was anything else he would like to say to motorists.

When driving on blue lights we are either going to an emergency or taking a seriously/critically ill/injured patent to hospital. We are not late for our dinner or the end of our shift which is a common myth. Inappropriate use of blue lights can cost us our job.

The important thing to remember is not to panic. Remember that you are responsible for your own actions on the road, regardless of the presence of an emergency vehicle. So bearing this in mind, you should move out of the way only when it is safe to do so without breaking the law, or endangering yourself or any other road user or pedestrian.

The Influencing Travel Behaviour Team have put together a guide which explains how you can safely (and legally) let an emergency vehicle pass.

What should I do if there’s an emergency vehicle behind me?

  • You should take action to let the emergency vehicle pass, but it’s important to remember that you need to keep within the law in doing so.
  • If you jump a red light to make space, you’ll still be breaking the law and are likely to be prosecuted. The same goes for entering a bus lane or yellow box junction.
  • In a court of law, it will be up to you to prove that the reason you broke the rules of the road was to clear a path for an emergency vehicle.
  • The best thing to do, if you can and the space allows, is to move yourself to the side of the road and come to a controlled stop. This should be done without putting any other road users or pedestrians at risk or committing any motoring offences.

Should I stop where I am?

  • This is rarely the best course of action, because emergency vehicles will then have to weave around you. You should try to manoeuvre towards the side of the road and then slow down to a stop. The exception is when there is a bus lane; leave this clear for the emergency vehicle to use.

Am I legally obliged to move over for emergency vehicles?

  • The Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006 states that it’s an offence to obstruct or hinder emergency services vehicles.
  • However, that doesn’t mean you should commit a driving offence to do so. The Highway Code states that you should ‘consider the route of such a vehicle and take appropriate action to let it pass, while complying with all traffic signs’.
  • In other words, while you should look to let the emergency vehicle pass, you shouldn’t if the only way to do so is by breaking the law.

What’s the official advice?

  • Follow this link for the official advice on dealing with emergency vehicles when driving – Rule 219.
  • This video shows motorists what they should and should not do when a vehicle on a blue light run is approaching. Whether that vehicle is a police car, fire appliance, ambulance or any other emergency vehicle it is vital that they are given the priority they need in a safe and effective way.

On a final note:

The Influencing Travel Behaviour Team hope this has given you a better understanding of how to respond to an approaching emergency vehicle. By following this advice you will be reducing the risks you may face and contributing to a safer road environment, as well as also possibly helping to save a life.

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