Australian Road Rules and emergency vehicles « Australian Emergency Law

Australian Road Rules and emergency vehicles

In Ambulance, Criminal law, Driving and Road Rules on July 27, 2012 at 10:53 am

I have been asked again about the application of the road rules when driving an emergency vehicle. My correspondent wrote:

I work for NSW ambulance service as a paramedic. I have been in the job for just short of ten years. Recent events have prompted me to investigate the legalities of rules regulating ambulances responding ‘lights and sirens’ in NSW.As is the nature of our job, we are given  jobs that are categorized R1(hot)(lights and sirens allowed) to R2- R7 (cold). I’ve been trying to track down information that clearly sets out rules applying to responding ‘lights and sirens’. The concern I have is many times jobs are categorized R1 when it is not necessary hence giving the driver the authority to disobey the RTA road rules, driving above the speed limit hence endangering the other road users on the road. I spoke to our oh&s rep who said “there is no legislation that entitles an ambulance to disobey the RTA road rules.. It’s just police turn a blind eye”. I have consulted management on the issue and they say we must respond in a manner that gets us to the job in a reasonable time. I have looked up our Operating procedures SOP and it basically says all care must be taken .. There appears to be no clear legislation hence making it hard to make an informed judgement on appropriate behavior in this regard. 

Do you have any clear information on this ?

I confess to being amazes that someone in the poison of the OHS rep can still say ‘there is no legislation that entitles an ambulance to disobey the RTA road rules.. It’s just police turn a blind eye’.  That is simply wrong.  Australia now has national road rules so the principles, if not the fine details, are the same.  In New South Wales the rules are in the Road Rules 2008 (NSW).  Rule 306 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.

All the jurisdictions have this rule, what varies is how they define what is an emergency vehicle (and see the extensive discussion under the post about mines rescue,, about what is or is not an emergency vehicle in Western Australia).  In NSW an emergency vehicle is defined as:

… any vehicle driven by a person who is:

(a) an emergency worker, and

(b) driving the vehicle in the course of his or her duties as an emergency worker.


“emergency worker” means:

(a) a member of the Ambulance Service rendering or providing transport for sick or injured persons, or

(b) a member of a fire brigade, rural fire brigade or the State Emergency Service providing transport in the course of an emergency, or

(c) a person (or a person belong to a class of persons) approved by the Authority.

This is better than trying to define what is an ambulance by reference to its design or use and ensures that vehicles used by the ambulance service, but not for transporting patients such as rapid response cars and motorcycles and command and support vehicles are ‘emergency vehicles’.

The rules in the Road Rules 2008 are all the rules of the road including obligations to obey traffic lights, keep left, not speed etc.  Serious offences such as dangerous driving are not in the Road Rules but the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) so the exemption does not apply.  The exemption is not an exemption from civil liability. So how can we know that it is reasonable that the rules should not apply?

That’s a question that could be argued case by case, but by having a system such as theone described goes a long way to saying the exemption should apply to R1 cases but not others.  If you use lights and sirens on an R2 you can expect a ticket and that you’ll have to go before a magistrate to try and show why your conduct was reasonable; if it’s R1 you could expect the ambulance service would write to the police confirming it was an R1 task and the ticket will be withdrawn. Whether a case should be classed as R1 is a matter of policy. I recall being told, when I was in NSW Ambulance that a ‘call to a person fallen’ may not sound like much, until you find they’ve fallen from the third floor so all 000 calls where ‘urgent duty’.  I don’t know what criteria is now used for R1 or how you know, before you get there, whether it’s an appropriate coding. As the driver you are in charge of the vehicle so you have to drive in a way that is safe regardless of the call, the R1 code can only authorize, not require you to rely on Rule 306.

Regardless of the call, you have to take reasonable care, so you have to take into account a driver approaching a green light will probably assume that they have right of way so if you pull in front of them that’s not taking reasonable care , you need to stop and make sure they’ve given way to you before proceeding. If you do that you should not get a ticket for running the red light, and if you do, eg from a red light camera, you can expect it to be dropped.  Equally you can’t drive so as put others at unnecessary risk, your desire to save a life doesn’t warrant killing or injuring someone else (see…, so if you are driving in a way that would cause a bystander to say’gee they’re going fast’ or ‘did you see that ambulance, that was dangerous’ then you’re not taking reasonable care.

If you crash the normal rules of civil liability apply but that’s ok, all vehicles, including vehicles that don’t need to be registered such as NSW RFS appliances, are covered by compulsory third party insurance schemes.  In theory it’s the personal liability of the driver but in reality it is not and, unless the driver is intoxicated, will never be a matter of personal liability. Any criminal liability, such as for dangerous driving causing death, is personal and does fall upon the driver.

My shorthand answer, not based on law as such but my catchy summary is: when authorized to proceed with lights and sirens (and what authorized means will vary from state to state and service to service) you can do whatever you like, provided you don’t crash – so drive in a way that makes sure you don’t crash – don’t drive too fast and don’t assume others have seen you or are giving way to you.

See also………

I hope that helps.


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About Darin Sullivan (1980 Articles)
Former President of the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (2009-2018) and a professional firefighter with more than 30 years experience. I live and work on the NSW South Coast, Australia. I am a strong advocate for firefighters and emergency service workers with an interest in mental health issues and caring for those around me. I am a former Director on the NSW Fire Brigades Death and Disability Super Fund and work with charities including ‘The Movember Foundation’. As a leader and activist I have long been active in the campaign for action on climate change. I am a Station Commander in the fire and rescue service in NSW and have 30 years experience fighting fires, both rural and urban. I am passionate about highlighting the impact climate change is having on fire preparedness and fire behaviour in Australia, and the risks associated with inaction on climate change. I am also a spokesperson for the Australian Climate Media Centre.
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