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Driving and Emergency Vehicles – the risks of giving way

We have all been in that situation - you hear the sirens and then see the blue lights of an emergency vehicle coming closer. The instinctive response is to let them pass to enable them to get to their destination quickly. A laudable reaction, to be sure – but what exactly does the law have to say?

A driver in London was recently given a £130 fine after pulling into a bus lane to let an ambulance pass. He was driving on Whipps Cross Road in Walthamstow when he moved into the bus lane to let the ambulance behind him pass. Waltham Forest Council caught this on CCTV, issued the fine and upheld it when the driver tried to appeal. This went viral on Facebook and the online newspaper story was swamped with shocked comments. The decision seems at odds with the natural instinct of drivers not to get in the way of the emergency services.

However, a new Highway Code driving rule came into force on 1st June 2022. Drivers could get fines and even points on their licence for letting an ambulance, a fire engine or police car pass them, depending on how they do so. The rule of thumb is to think whether your intended response would be legal if there was no emergency vehicle present.

You must avoid carrying out unsafe actions to avoid sanction. The Code requires you to consider the route of an emergency 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.

In the Walthamstow case for example, the Council sent the motorist a letter stating that under current legislation, a vehicle must not drive, park or stop in a bus lane during its period of operation unless the signs indicate that a vehicle may do so. Emergency services can use a bus lane when responding to an emergency - so pulling into a bus lane would more likely obstruct their path rather than assist. In his representations, the driver said that a bus was parked at a bus stop so the ambulance had to overtake on the right, outside the bus lane and he went into it to let it pass. Public pressure built up to the extent that Walthamstow Forest Council eventually agreed to cancel the fine – admitting that it should not have been issued.

According to the Council’s policy, if an emergency vehicle is on call and a driver pulls to one side to make way – even in a bus lane – they should not get a ticket.

It is advisable, however, not to place yourself in this situation in the first instance. RAC advice is ‘Don’t Panic’ and remain alert. Resist the temptation to stop in the middle of the road or to jump up the kerb. They suggest drivers keep going until there is a suitable place to pull over and to use common sense so as not to come into conflict with other road users.

Unsafe actions could be:

· Pulling into a clear bus lane or stopping at a bus stop. Buses, of course, have priority over other traffic in bus lanes. Entry into a bus lane at certain times, or even at any time, can be an offence. This can impede the progress of an on-call emergency vehicle and delay its arrival. It can cause congestion and block other traffic as well as creating a hazard for pedestrians and cyclists.

· Running a red light. This can potentially lead to collisions and injuries to other road users and damage to property. Stay behind the line when an emergency vehicles approaches.

· Getting stuck in a yellow box junction. It is an offence, in England, to stop in a yellow box junction. These are usually found at busy intersections and are intended to keep traffic moving by preventing vehicles from blocking them.

· Making an illegal turn. A dangerous manoeuvre that may distract other road users and cause them to swerve or brake. Crossing into oncoming traffic puts you at risk of having a collision.

· Mounting the kerb. This may be seen as endangering other road users and pedestrians.

· Braking harshly at junctions, roundabouts, the brow of a hill or at narrow bends in roads. Following vehicles may not have the same view as you and this may lead to a collision.

If you have employees who drive for their job, then it is important to ensure that you have training policies and procedures in place that address these matters. These safeguards could help your position if one of your drivers is involved in a situation that leads to a traffic offence, or an accident. If you are unsure about what should be in such a training package, you should speak to a solicitor who is experienced in motoring law.

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