We’ve all had that momentary panic when an emergency service vehicle - ie an ambulance, police car or fire engine - comes up behind us with its blue lights flashing and siren blaring and makes your heart beat that little bit faster.
What do we do: brake; swerve out of the way; or continue along in the hope they can squeeze past us?
I know (from personal experience) the most common reaction is to slam on the brakes, which often makes things much, much worse…
So, here’s our guide on what you should do when an emergency services vehicle comes up behind you.
The Highway Code
As ever, The Highway Code provides our framework, and Rule 219 states:
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 Highways Agency 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 first thing is not to panic. Yes, they will need to get past you but they will only do so when it is safe, which means having the space and vision to be able to safely overtake you.
If you slam your brakes on to make it easier for them to pass you, all you are doing is creating a fresh obstacle for them to negotiate around that wasn’t there a second ago.
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Don’t break the law
While drivers are expected to get out of the way of an emergency services vehicle that is displaying flashing blue lights and/or using a siren, there is no exemption from normal traffic laws to enable you to do so.
Drivers of emergency service vehicles might be able to treat a red traffic signal as a ‘Give Way’ sign, but you are not and passing a red light places you in danger, as well as those drivers who are lawfully passing through a green traffic signal.
The same goes for bus lanes, solid white lines, and yellow box junctions: you must not break the law by contravening them, no matter how well intentioned your actions.
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Plan your course of action
You will often hear the vehicle coming before you can see them. When you hear the approaching siren emitted by a emergency services vehicle, check your mirrors to get an idea of their closing speed and what the traffic behind you is doing, which will often give you a clue as to the direction it is approaching from.
By doing this you will often have plenty of time to safely pull into the kerb and wait to let them past in an orderly and safe way.
If you cannot pull up in plenty of time, then your best course of action is to maintain your normal speed until it is safe to move over.
You might consider indicating left to let the emergency service vehicle that is following you know you have seen them before braking smoothly and gently when there is space, pulling in to the nearside of your lane if you can to enable them to pass you.
You must not pull up and mount the kerb to get onto the pavement unless you absolutely have to, and even then you must be mindful of pedestrians.
Nor should you pull up on a blind bend or on the brow of a hill; in both cases it is better to continue driving until you can pull up in a safe place.
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Motorways and dual carriageways
On a motorway or dual carriageway you should pull across to the nearside lane as soon as it is safe to do so, always making sure the traffic in the other lanes is aware of what is going on and isn’t oblivious to the reasons why you are moving across the carriageways.
If all three lanes are blocked then the emergency vehicle will generally use the hard shoulder, which is why you should only use it in an emergency.
Tips for driving on motorways
If you are approaching a roundabout you should let the emergency service vehicle enter and navigate it before you do.
Check your mirrors again
After being passed, you must check your mirrors again to make sure there isn’t more than one ambulance, fire engine or police car coming along the road.
Also, check that following traffic isn’t trying to gain an advantage by overtaking everyone who did the right thing by creating some space. It shouldn’t happen but it does, so you need to plan for it.
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Plans were mooted in the 1990s to adopt different colours for the different emergency services. This would have assigned the police blue lights, ambulances and doctors green, leaving red for the fire services.
As you might have noticed, nothing came of them, although the police have started to use red lights in addition to the more traditional blue.
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