Having an emergency vehicle come rushing up behind you on the road can cause panic in lots of drivers. The noise of the sirens and glare of the flashing lights add to the pressure of trying to get out of the way so the vehicle can attend to its emergency.
Or maybe you’re sitting in heavy traffic and an ambulance is trying to get through the gridlock. What are you supposed to do? Should you cross into an intersection or mount a kerb to get out of the way?
Stay calm, stay alert
Often you will hear the siren of an emergency vehicle before you see the flashing lights (unless you are one of those delightful individuals who has the music turned all the way up and would be unable to hear a nuclear explosion right next to you).
Work out where the sound is coming from and look for opportunities to move over to the side of the road. There’s no rush; far better to take a few moments to make sure there are no cyclists in your blind spot or other cars also trying to dive out of the way.
Even if an emergency vehicle suddenly appears in your mirrors with lights flashing and siren blaring, the same thing applies. Keep calm and follow your normal ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’ routine. The few seconds that it takes may avoid an accident by ensuring that you don’t move over on another road user, and the emergency vehicle can understand exactly what you’re doing rather than trying to guess.
Panicking and swerving wildly or hitting the brakes is only likely to lead to an accident and require more emergency vehicles.
Police, ambulance, fire and other emergency drivers are trained to deal with negotiating traffic, and they are allowed to break traffic laws if they are in an emergency situation (lights and sirens going). What they need you to do is be calm, courteous, safe and predictable so they can get past quickly and safely.
What the Highway Code says
Rule 219 of the UK Highway Code covers emergency vehicles:
“Emergency and Incident Support vehicles. You should look and listen for ambulances, fire engines, police, doctors or other emergency vehicles using flashing blue, red or green lights and sirens or flashing headlights, or traffic officer and incident support vehicles using flashing amber lights. When one approaches, do not panic. Consider the route of such a vehicle and take appropriate action to let it pass, while complying with all traffic signs. If necessary, pull to the side of the road and stop, but try to avoid stopping before the brow of a hill, a bend or narrow section of road. Do not endanger yourself, other road users or pedestrians and avoid mounting the kerb. Do not brake harshly on approach to a junction or roundabout, as a following vehicle may not have the same view as you.”
The key phrase here is “… take appropriate action to let is pass, while complying with all traffic signs.” In other words, don’t ignore traffic signs (including traffic lights).
Although the above rule is probably not very well written and does not state it clearly, there is nothing in the Highway Code which says you can break the law to assist an emergency vehicle.
Don’t break the law unless instructed to by police
City streets can be a navigational nightmare for emergency vehicles, as they try to thread their way through a gridlock of cars, buses and vans. When traffic is at a standstill, drivers will often try to help by moving into an intersection, roundabout or bus lane to get out of the way. However, as much as you are trying to do the right thing, this is usually the wrong move.
If an emergency vehicle driver can see there is no clear path through stationary traffic, like a set of traffic lights, they will often switch off the lights and sirens and wait for an opportunity to move again (like the lights changing).
Official advice from police departments across the country is not to break the law to assist an emergency vehicle unless a police officer instructs you to do so. There are a number of reasons for this, but largely it is a bigger-picture approach to road safety. If you move against a red light into an intersection, you may move into the path of a vehicle coming from another direction that has not seen the emergency vehicle. You may be putting yourself and other road users in danger.
But I’m trying to help!
It often seems like the right thing to do, to pull across into a bus lane or ignore a red light and edge into an intersection to let an emergency vehicle through. However, it may not be helping at all.
Emergency vehicles will often use bus lanes to bypass lots of stationary or slow-moving cars, so pulling over into the bus lane might simply put you in the way and make life harder for the ambulance or police car trying to get wherever it’s going.
Can I be fined for breaking the law to assist an emergency vehicle?
Yes, you can. Councils and local authorities are heartless bureaucracies at the best of times, but in this case they do have the law on their side. There is nothing in the Highway Code which says you can break the law if you are trying to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle.
The internet is full of stories of drivers who are upset because they have been fined by automated camera systems for entering bus lanes or intersections to try and make way for an emergency vehicle to get past.
There are also plenty of stories and old wives’ tales about how you can write to the relevant authority and explain how you were trying to assist an emergency vehicle, but there are no legal provisions to get you out of a traffic penalty. Sometimes these fines are withdrawn if the driver appeals and there is supporting evidence, but certainly not always.
Finally, remember there may be more than one vehicle
If you have pulled over or moved out of the way of an emergency vehicle, don’t blindly pull back out again once it has passed.
There are often multiple police cars, ambulances or fire appliances heading towards the same incident, so you may have let one vehicle past and then pulled straight back into the path of another one following behind.
Also, there will be other vehicles who have taken avoiding action who are also looking to continue their journey, so be aware that other road users around you are all trying to re-enter the road space at the same time.
This article was originally written in September 2016 and most recently updated in July 2021.