Dealing With Emergency Vehicles Safely

Ambulance moving through traffic

Whether you’re a learner driver or a veteran of many years, you’ll undoubtedly have encountered emergency vehicles on the road. In these moments, you may be faced with a level of panic when you attempt to figure out what you should do. With the sirens and lights going, it can be difficult to keep a level head. So, are you supposed to brake, swerve or continue on your way? To help you make the best decision, we’ve compiled a guide so that you can deal with emergency vehicles safely.

What does the Highway Code say?

Before we delve into our tips for dealing with emergency vehicles safely, we’ll first look at the Highway Code. As we’ve said when discussing the history of the Highway Code, the Code has been important for keeping all road users safe. As such, it’s our first port of call when looking at what we should do when we encounter emergency vehicles on the road. You can see what the code has to say in Rule 219 below…

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 the 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.

Key points to take away:

  • Keep an eye and ear out for emergency vehicles
  • Don’t panic or overdo anything
  • Think carefully about what steps to take
  • Avoid hazardous areas
  • Pay attention to nearby vehicles

We’re going to break these ideas down further below. Before we do that, however, we’re going to first look at the steps you can take to prepare for the possibility of coming across emergency vehicles. You might also find it useful to read up on the top 5 causes of car accidents in 2016 and how to avoid them.


Preparations: dos and don’ts

To do book with a timer next to it

① Plan ahead

While you can’t always completely expect the unexpected, you can still keep an eye—and ear—out for emergency vehicles. If you see flashing blue, red or green headlights or hear sirens, you should be prepared to move into action as soon as possible. Remember that you should be checking your rear-view mirror regularly anyway—so an emergency vehicle shouldn’t catch you completely unawares.

② Avoid loud noise

Now, we’re not saying that you should completely avoid listening to your music or the radio. What we are saying, however, is that you should always make sure that you’re not listening to anything so loudly that you wouldn’t be able to hear emergency sirens. It might be obvious, but you should also avoid your mobile phone at all costs. If, for whatever reason, you don’t see the emergency vehicle coming then the sound should be a dead giveaway.

③ Stay calm

One of the worst things you could do in a situation with emergency vehicles is panic. While it’s understandable to feel a bit of pressure, everyone on the road is in the same boat as you. As long as you stay reasonably calm and collected, you should be just fine. Remember that emergency vehicle drivers know what they’re doing—negotiating traffic is something they’re more than used to.

④ Don’t get distracted

It can be all too easy to freeze up and find yourself staring at emergency vehicles—with the lights and noise, they can be extremely distracting. If you get too caught up in it, however, you might end up backing up traffic or causing dangerous traffic situations. This can be even more problematic when driving on the motorway. Especially smart motorways, where the hard shoulder may be being used as a lane. It’s always advisable to stay as aware as possible of the positioning of the vehicles closest to you.

⑤ Don’t stop at the wrong place

We’re going to look specifically at the worst places you could stop at further below. In a broad sense, however, you should make sure that you don’t stop suddenly. After all, you don’t know how the vehicle behind you might react, and if they’re too slow then you could end up causing a mass collision. If you swerve or try something wholly unpredictable, you could threaten the safety of both the emergency vehicle and other road users.

⑤ Don’t break the law

This is a particularly important point to be aware of. While you are expected to move out of the way of emergency vehicles so that they can pass, you’re not exempt from road laws. This means you’re not allowed to go through red lights, bus lanes, solid white lanes or yellow box junctions. If you do, you might land yourself a fine.

The actions we’ve discussed in this section are—for the most part—preparation tips you can use to give yourself the best possible chance of reacting well and meeting emergency vehicles safely. You might also find it useful to update yourself on our top defensive driving tips. The next section will look at the actual actions you should take if you hear sirens or see emergency vehicles approaching.


How can I deal with emergency vehicles safely?

Check, estimate and plan

Cars reflected in car side mirror

Once you’ve heard the sirens or spotted the lights, you should take a good look at the vehicle in your rear-view mirror. This gives you the chance to estimate how close the vehicle is—the further away it is, the more time you might have to react. Of course, you’ll also have to judge the speed of the vehicle. Even if you’re not sure, you’ll have to plan your next move quickly and carefully. Bear in mind that if you decide to go through a red light, for example, you’re still breaking the law.

Look ahead and to the side of your vehicle and see where it might be safe to pull over. Make sure you move carefully and slowly—moving too quickly can lead to confusion and collision. Try to figure out the most likely route the emergency vehicle will take. Pay close attention to other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians—don’t forget to frequently check your blindspot. If you’re on a motorway, you should pull across to the left-hand lane. And, if all three lanes are blocked, the emergency vehicle will use the hard shoulder instead. If you’re approaching a roundabout, let the emergency vehicle safely enter it before you—you’ll avoid any difficult situations that way.

You’re cautioned against:

  • Mounting the kerb
  • Stopping on a hill or blind bend
  • Blocking hospital or fire station entrances
  • Stopping at junctions or intersections

Signal, pull over and wait, continue

close up of car's rear light at night

Once you’ve sorted out your plan of action, you need to remember your MSM routine. It’s absolutely no good continuing on the way you are or trying to pull in somewhere if no one else on the road knows what you’re doing. As you would with any other action on the road, check your mirrors, signal your intent to let other drivers know what you’re doing and complete your manoeuvre—in this case, pulling over in a safe place.

When you’re finally ready, try to pull over to the inside lane—or your other chosen safe place—and wait there until the emergency vehicle has passed you by. Be aware however, that there might be more than one emergency vehicle. You don’t want to get in the way of one after successfully avoiding the first, so be careful. If the vehicle passes you, try to give it a wide berth. You might also be heading towards the site of an accident, so approach with caution.

Once you know it’s safe to continue, start to move back into traffic. Keep your eye out for any slower or faster-moving vehicles to avoid collision—something you should be familiar with in the hazard perception test. Check your mirrors once more to make sure there aren’t any approaching hazards.


Conclusion

There are many important things to take away from this guide. One of the first is that you shouldn’t overdo anything—stay calm and react to the situation with a level head. You’re not going to do anyone any good if you’re swerving and forgetting everything you’ve been taught. It’s also important to remember that you’re not allowed to break the law. Even if you think it might help, more often than not, emergency vehicles know what to do without you needing to take any drastic action.

Your actions will be vital in helping emergency vehicles get to their destination on time. So bear our tips in mind and you’ll be able to provide emergency vehicles with a fast, effective and safe response.

By Bethany Hall

Whether you’re a learner or a pro driver, Bethany is here to help. From defensive driving to the Highway Code, she’ll tell you everything you need know about driving. If she’s not on the road, you’ll probably find Bethany with her head in a book or binge-watching the latest TV show.