What To Do When An Emergency Vehicle Approaches

Surprisingly, many motorists are doing the wrong things when they see emergency vehicles trying to get past. Here’s a guide on what to do…
Megan Ellis
2017-04-28
We all know the situation: the blare of a siren, flashing lights in our rear-view mirror and, of course, the multitude of cars who aren't getting out of the way. Every driver should know what to do when an emergency vehicle approaches and needs to drive past. But, surprisingly, many flail and cost the emergency responders precious time. Here is a guide on what you should do when an emergency vehicle approaches:

Challenges Facing Responders

You might think that this is not much of a problem, with most motorists doing what's expected. However, Arrive Alive published a Q&A with insights from paramedics from CrisisOnCall, and drivers not knowing what to do when an emergency vehicle approaches is very much a problem. According to paramedics, people on the roads are aware of sirens, but they tend to react differently.
"Most motorists are aware and allow us to pass them easily; some people realise too late that there is an emergency vehicle behind them, while others just plainly ignore us," paramedics told Arrive Alive.
Some motorists even purposefully try block emergency vehicles. Or, use it as an opportunity to overtake other vehicles, which are pulling to the side.
"We often see people tailgating emergency vehicles and moving into emergency lanes when there is traffic backup. This, ultimately, delays a response," the paramedics said.
There is also a significant problem with accidents at intersections, because drivers do not notice the emergency vehicle. All this is part of a larger group of problems that emergency response vehicles experience. Additional problems include peak hour traffic, road works, and road obstructions. There has also recently been a spotlight on the dangers which emergency responders face in high crime areas. Numerous responders have been assaulted or attacked - with some emergency calls actually being traps to lure them there. With all these challenges, the way you drive can at least take some of the trouble out of the public servants' journeys.

What You Should Do

Firstly, make sure that you can actually hear sirens of approaching vehicles. While many of us enjoy music in the car, you should make sure that the sound doesn’t drown out sirens. Once you hear the siren, Arrive Alive suggests immediately identifying where the vehicle is coming from. This rather than waiting for it to get to you. If the emergency vehicle is behind you, don't brake and stop. Move to the side so that the vehicle can pass. The lane which the vehicle is in will determine which side you should move to. Usually you can move to the left side. However, if the vehicle is riding between lanes and you are in the right lane, you should move to the right side. Likewise, if the emergency vehicle is in the left lane, do not move to the left if you are in the right lane. Once the vehicle passes, be cautious and on the lookout for any other emergency vehicles. This is especially true for police vehicles as, often, there are two or more driving together. After you have confirmed that everything is clear, you can return to normal driving. Other suggestions include using your indicators to signal to emergency vehicles the direction in which you are moving.
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What About Intersections?

If you see an emergency vehicle with its sirens and lights on at an intersection, the first thing you should do is slow down and come to a stop if the emergency vehicle needs to cross your path, regardless of whether the traffic light is green. Those turning at intersections should be especially cautious. If everyone has stopped, take the time to figure out why rather than just turning. Emergency responders are trained to stop at intersections and proceed through slowly. But, this does not mean that you should try rush through before the emergency vehicle gets to you. Rather just let it pass. Rob Hanfield-Jones, from Driving.co.za, suggests these actions at intersections:
  • Move as far left (or right) as you can to create space for the vehicle to get by if they are approaching from behind.
  • If the emergency vehicle is crossing the intersection against a red light, or clearly intends to disregard a stop street or yield sign, you have to let them through.
  • Give way even if the light is green for you or it's "your turn".

Don't Make Assumptions

While many motorists hate the notorious blue light brigades, rather don't make assumptions about the purpose of an approaching convoy. "We ask people to rather allow the vehicle to pass as they don’t know the situation at hand," paramedics told Arrive Alive. Some people see ambulances switching off their sirens suddenly and assume that it was just a rouse to get through traffic. However, this is usually due to responders being told that an emergency vehicle is no longer required.

What Are The Consequences Of Not Giving Way?

If empathy with people in emergency situations is not a strong enough reason for drivers to do their best to let emergency vehicles pass, there are always the legal ramifications. According to another post by Arrive Alive, it is an offence for drivers to not immediately try give way to vehicles with emergency lights - regardless of whether you think it might be legitimate or not. The laws are outlined in Reg 308 and specify that drivers need to give way, although with regard to the safety of other traffic. Therefore, you don't have to give way at all costs if it endangers others. But, you do have to make reasonable attempts to let the emergency vehicle pass. Failure to do so is punishable by law.