How should you react to an emergency vehicle?

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Author: | Updated: 19 May 2020 16:15

Our NHS workers are heroes. Every Thursday at 8pm millions of us gather together to Clap for Carers to show appreciation for key-workers, but how else can we help? For a start, you can get out of the way in an emergency.

We’ve all been there: sat in slow-moving rush hour traffic or at traffic lights, and you see an emergency vehicle’s blue lights become ever-brighter in your mirrors. We all know we obliged to get out the way, but more than one-third of motorists admit they aren’t clear on the current rules of how to deal with an emergency vehicle.

If you don’t know how to react, you can potentially put yourself or the emergency vehicle in danger, break the law or even cause a collision. We take a closer look at the issues.

How should you react to an emergency vehicle

What does the law say?

When it comes to emergency vehicles, Rule 219 of the Highway Code states drivers 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”.


So, there is nothing specific in the law that requires you to stop as such. But you are required to act responsibly and make way for the vehicle.  So what are the do’s and don'ts?


  • Consider the emergency vehicle’s route as they pass. If there is a clear path through you needn’t necessarily have to react;
  • Observe any indications on direction the emergency vehicle is making;
  • Be prepared to stop if necessary, although avoid stopping near bends, on verges and on kerbs;
  • Make sure you give the vehicle as wide a berth as possible if you have to stop;
  • Check your mirrors before merging back into traffic to ensure there are no more emergency vehicles that need to pass.


  • Panic in tricky situations such as slow moving traffic or one-way streets – stopping instead of continuing to drive can actually cause more problems. Allow the vehicle to overtake you only where there’s enough space;
  • Break the law by speeding up or running red lights – while you mustn’t hinder an emergency vehicle’s progress on purpose, doing such things can still land you in trouble. For example, if you entered a bus lane to get out of the way, you’ll still be liable to a fine.

What about motorways?

If you’re on a clear motorway, more likely than not the emergency vehicle will be in the outside lane. If you’re blocking its path, you should pull across to the nearside lane as soon as it’s safe to. If all three lances are blocked with congestion, the emergency vehicle will take to the hard shoulder – a good reason why it should only ever be used in an emergency.

However, remember that some vehicles such as fire engines only have a top speed of 75 mph, and ambulances might not travel at high speed if there’s a patient on board.

Motorway traffic

Read more: The top five UK police cars past and present

Can emergency vehicle drivers break the law?

You might be surprised to hear that there are more laws for the drivers of emergency vehicles themselves than there are for others, and that there are certain things they still aren’t permitted to do even if they’re en route to an emergency. Drivers of police cars, ambulances and fire engines are permitted to…

  • Drive above the speed limit;
  • Treat red lights as a give way sign;
  • Pass vehicles on the wrong side of a ‘keep left’ bollard;
  • Drive on a motorway hard shoulder and against the direction of traffic.

However, they aren’t permitted to…

  • Ignore ‘STOP’, ‘give way’ or ‘no entry’ signs;
  • Drive down a one-way street in the wrong direction';
  • Ignore flashing signs at level crossings/bridges/boat crossings;
  • Cross a white line.

For example, emergency vehicles are meant to turn off sirens approaching a red traffic light. This is to stop other drivers breaking the law and running a red light, potentially causing a collision.

toy ambulance and police

What happens in Europe?

Although the law in the UK doesn’t go into very much detail when it comes to giving way to emergency vehicles, elsewhere things are rather different. Take Germany, for example.

German Polizei

The country is famed for its network of high-speed autobahns which, in spite of their speedy nature, are among the safest roads in the world. And this extract from the German government’s website goes some way to explaining why:

“Drivers of vehicles are required to clear a lane for emergency vehicles [Rettungsgasse ] between the existing lanes of a motorway [Autobahn] or a dual carriageway [Autostraße] as soon as traffic ceases to progress and congestion is imminent. This obligation applies on carriageways which are divided and have at least two lanes. Clearing a lane helps emergency vehicles get to their destination without being hindered.

On carriageways with two lanes a lane for emergency vehicles must be cleared between the two existing lanes; on carriageways with more than two lanes it must be cleared between the far left lane and the lane next to it.”

You can see the practice in action in the video above. Do you think we should adopt it as a rule in the UK, or would it not work on our roads?

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