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Michael Eburn answers an important response driving question on his Australian Emergency Law blog – December 4, 2015.

Michael Eburn:

I’m asked this question by a NSW volunteer but let me jump to the conclusion – lights and sirens don’t give you any rights.

Now to the question:

I was told other vehicles must give way to emergency vehicles when under lights and sirens but I’ve also been told that if you’re under lights and sirens it does not give you the right-of-way. Of course you have to take care at all times but I’m interested in know what rights does the driver of an emergency services vehicles under lights and sirens have.

The relevant provisions of the Australian Road Rules (reproduced in NSW as the Road Rules 2014 (NSW) are rules 78, 79 and 306.

Rule 78 says:

(1) A driver must not move into the path of an approaching police or emergency vehicle that is displaying a flashing blue or red light (whether or not it is also displaying other lights) or sounding an alarm.

Maximum penalty: 20 penalty units.

(2) If a driver is in the path of an approaching police or emergency vehicle that is displaying a flashing blue or red light (whether or not it is also displaying other lights) or sounding an alarm, the driver must move out of the path of the vehicle as soon as the driver can do so safely.

Maximum penalty: 20 penalty units.

(3) This rule applies to the driver despite any other rule of these Rules.

(See also Making way for emergency vehicles (May 18, 2015)).

Rule 79 says:

(1) A driver must give way to a police or emergency vehicle that is displaying a flashing blue or red light (whether or not it is also displaying other lights) or sounding an alarm.

Maximum penalty: 20 penalty units.

(2) This rule applies to the driver despite any other rule of these Rules that would otherwise require the driver of a police or emergency vehicle to give way to the driver.

Rule 306 we know well and it says:

A provision of these Rules does not apply to the driver of an emergency vehicle if:

(a) in the circumstances:

(i) the driver is taking reasonable care, and

(ii) it is reasonable that the rule should not apply, and

(b) if the vehicle is a motor vehicle that is moving-the vehicle is displaying a blue or red flashing light or sounding an alarm.

Rules 78 and 79 don’t give the driver of the emergency vehicle any ‘rights’. They impose an obligation upon other drivers and if they don’t honour that obligation they can be fined up to $2200 (a penalty unit, in NSW, is $110 Crimes Sentencing Procedure Act 1999 (NSW) s 17). But that doesn’t give the driver of the emergency vehicle the right to run into them or to expect that a driver will give way. A driver approaching a green traffic light may not have seen, heard, understood or been either willing or able to give way to an approaching fire appliance. The fact that they are committing an offence does not justify either assuming they will or have given way – the driver of the appliance still has to stop and make sure it’s safe to proceed before doing so.

Rule 306 doesn’t give any ‘rights’ either; it does provide that if the circumstances set out apply, the driver has a defence if he or she is issued with an infringement notice for breaching one of the other road rules. Remember offences such as dangerous driving causing death or injury and manslaughter are not dealt with in the road rules, so rule 306 has no application if a driver is charged with one of those offences (see Tragic outcome from RFS response (April 4, 2013)). The rule and the expectation that drivers do drive under ‘response’ conditions will be relevant in deciding whether or not the driver was driving with ‘gross negligence’ (which is what is required for one of those offences) but it is just one relevant factor, it is not a ‘defence’.

Although it’s not a statement of the law a useful way to think about lights and sirens is, at best, they constitute a request to other drivers to make way for you.

PS after posting this, a commentator wrote, in response to an earlier post (see Red/blue lights but no siren? (November 29, 2015)) that ‘Emergency driving is a privilege, not a right…’. That’s the gist of my answer here, distilled to 8 words!

Visit Michael’s blog to read the entire article (with links), click HERE.

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One thought on “Your rights under lights and siren – By Michael Eburn

  • December 24, 2015 at 7:07 pm
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    I am glad to see this so clearly explained. It is one major reason that inexperienced drivers should never never be permitted to drive an operational vehicle is or may be required to respond to an incident. Team Managers need to go back to enforcing that RFD is the MINIMUM requirement to drive an operational vehicle, not someone who got their MR licence five minutes ago.

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